With Foster gone, does the DUP's future hang in the balance?

By Benjamin Martin

The DUP have served as the largest unionist party in Northern Ireland for almost two decades, but how viable is their position heading further into this new decade?


Whenever Northern Ireland appears in national news headlines, it’s rarely ever for a positive reason. Whether it is Neanderthalic rioting, or another failed attempt by dissidents to repeat scenes from forty years ago, you can almost guarantee that our peculiar corner of the UK has not discovered some divine miracle to save all of humanity. However, depending on your perspective, perhaps yesterday’s news put an end to this seemingly inevitable trend.


It was announced last night that the Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and First Minister, Arlene Foster, had fallen victim to a letter of no confidence which was being distributed amongst her MLAs to oust her from her top job within the DUP. As the night progressed, it became clear that a sizable majority, 75% to be precise, of her 28 Members of the Assembly had signed this letter. By this morning we were notified that 80% of the DUP’s representatives in both Stormont and Westminster combined had thrown their support behind this measure.


It’s important to understand the background on who exactly the Democratic Unionists are. Founded in 1971 by the renowned, or some may say notorious, Ian Paisley, for decades the party stood as a fundamentally Evangelical bulwark of the Union and Northern Ireland’s Protestant community. Paisley had previously established the Free Presbyterian Church, which even to this day remains one of the most principled and Calvinist religious institutions. The party was initially composed, by and large, of his rural religious supporters, with Paisley also garnering support from less fervent Protestants in working class, urban areas.


While Paisley had remained a familiar face throughout the period of the Troubles, the DUP did not assume the Ulster Unionists’ historic position as the largest unionist party in NI until 2003, where following five years of power-sharing with the SDLP, many of the latter’s more hardline members flocked to Paisley’s party. Ever since, the party has retained this seat, despite the fact that they themselves entered government with Sinn Fein in 2007.


Nevertheless, while the DUP have undeniably maintained their reputation as a right-wing, socially conservative and staunchly unionist block, the party has in recent times been plagued by a multitude of scandals, namely ‘Namagate’ and the RHI Scandal. The former resulted in the resignation of Paisley’s long-standing deputy, Peter Robinson, as First Minister, while the latter caused the collapse of the Executive from 2017 to 2020 with Foster’s newfound position in the top office also seemingly falling under threat from the outset.


Despite this, however, Foster retained the support of her party and eventually was able to re-enter government from the start of last year, on the eve of the pandemic. Everything appeared somewhat normal for once, that is until rioting broke out last month, a factor which will almost certainly have contributed to Foster’s downfall. With mounting pressure from this challenge, it was announced this afternoon that she would tender her resignation as Leader at the end of next month, with her departing as First Minister by the end of June.


What has led to this and who will ultimately replace her? The first can be summarised by a term which has become somewhat profane in recent years - Brexit. One of the major causes of recent rioting has been opposition to the introduction of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which many ardent loyalists deem as posing a threat to the Union insofar that it creates an ‘economic united Ireland’. I personally don’t share such a pessimistic view of the situation, and while it isn’t ideal, I believe that pragmatically speaking the sea border is necessary in the short-term anyways. However, the vast majority of loyalists, as well as seemingly many within the DUP ranks, would reject this view insisting that the Protocol is inherently damaging to the Union.


The DUP have received immense criticism from their base for failing to prevent the introduction of these measures. At the time, they of course booed and hissed, but in terms of taking direct action to prevent it, there was an apparent deficit. The result of this was a decline in the DUP’s support in a recent poll to around 19%, with Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice, which split from the DUP after they entered power with SF in 2007, increasing their share from 2% to 10%. Many placed the blame on Foster and her Deputy Leader Nigel Dodds, whose defeat in North Belfast in the 2019 General Election struck a massive blow for the party. While the DUP have since attempted to reverse the Protocol via Parliamentary petitions and such, for many it has been too little too late, and the product of this anguish is the disgraceful and barbaric violence which transpired last month.


Yet, it would be foolish to pin all the blame onto the Protocol. Foster has herself been perceived as a more moderate member of the party. She was amongst the crowd who deserted from the UUP in 2003 and has consistently taken a softer line on key issues than her colleagues. One notable instance was when she abstained on a vote to outlaw gay conversion therapy last week, a motion which most of her MLAs rejected. Her acceptance of an Irish Language Act, granted after years of opposition, is another aspect of this equation. When we take into consideration the fact that she is a lifelong member of the Church of Ireland, as opposed to the Free Presbyterian Church which is almost synonymous with her party, it is clear to see that there are some underlying rifts.


It’s difficult to point to one factor and say that this was the sole cause of the leadership challenge. But I believe the biggest impediment she faces resorts back to electoral performance. When Foster faced calls to resign in 2017 following the RHI Scandal (she has since been vindicated of any wrongdoing) and a poor result in the snap Assembly Election that year, her position was eventually reinforced by the fact that in the June General Election, the DUP made considerable and lucrative gains and experienced their strongest performance to date. This delayed the question considerably. However, with a continued decline in the polls and damaging losses in the 2019 GE, the viability of her leadership going into next year’s Assembly Elections has naturally been called into question.


With her resignation, the second question looms over who will succeed her. A great deal of the DUP’s ‘big beasts’ hold their seats in Westminster, which could serve as an issue seeing as the most important vacancy is at the Head of the Executive. The likes of Jeffrey Donaldson, Sammy Wilson and Gavin Robinson (no relation to Peter) all serve as recognisable and vocal faces of the party. Out of these three, speculation points to a higher likelihood of Robinson succeeding Foster.


At age 36, he would serve as a youthful, and perhaps even more moderate replacement which could increase the party’s appeal next year. Furthermore, while youth largely suggests inexperience, this is not a problem which would hinder his bid as a result of his distinguished experience in the workings of both Stormont and Westminster respectively. Those who know Robinson have commented that he is a truly amicable bloke, which cannot always be said for DUP leaders and representatives, many of whom are deemed to be out of touch and too old-fashioned. His appointment would take the DUP in a new and quite interesting direction.


Another contender for the post would usually have been Nigel Dodds, now a peer in the House of Lords. But the letter of no confidence has also called into question his incumbency within the party for similar reasons. This may also jeopardise any attempt by his wife, Diane Dodds, the current Economy Minister and member of the Paisleyite wing of the party, to succeed Foster. Rather, out of the DUP’s remaining three Ministers (Dodds, Weir and Poots), it is the Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots who would at current be the bookies’ favourite. A Free Presbyterian from a rural background, Poots is arguably the textbook definition of a traditional Paisleyite, and he ardently occupies a position on that wing of the party. His selection would serve to appease the current internal unrest, but his wider electability may not be as clear cut as Robinson’s. However, many also recognise him as a likable person and potentially one who can relate to the man on the street more so.


I would be putting my money on Poots. What the DUP are looking for at the moment is seemingly a return to the old guard. Their priority is to win back the support of their loyalist base, and prevent a mass exodus to the TUV next spring. Robinson may dampen the DUP’s image as outdated fanatics, but he would still struggle to appeal to moderate unionists, who have traditionally voted for the UUP and are now moving in favour of the cross-community Alliance Party. This isn’t a criticism of his character, but ultimately an unimpeachable fact which stems from the DUP’s brand in the public eye, which even his succession would fail to change.


I have never been a fan of the DUP. In my eyes, their convictions are more appropriate within the history books than manifestos being produced in the 21st century. The amalgamation of their undeniable corruption and scandal with their frankly nonsensical beliefs and attitudes continue to misrepresent many unionists, including myself, who simply have a desire to remain a part of the UK. They have politicised and polarised this key constitutional question, making it more so a left/right issue when this really isn’t the case. The party desperately needs change, which is why I would personally favour Poots as potentially the more down to earth choice, but a new face at the top will only be a short-term solution to the systemic reform which the DUP imminently requires.


Image credit: DUP photos

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