Arlene Foster’s Legacy to the North

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Ellen McKenna explores Foster’s time in power, as well as the issues she has left to be resolved by the DUP, to see what’s ahead for Northern Irish politics.

Early Involvement in Politics

Arlene Foster, of the West of the Bann constituency, is one of Northern Ireland’s most prominent politicians. Her political career began while she was a Law student at Queen’s University Belfast as a member of the Queen’s Unionist Association, which is part of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). Foster displayed keen interest at this time: She chaired the Association from 1992 to 1993, she chaired the youth wing of the UUP when she left Queens, and she became Honorary Secretary of the UUP’s ruling body. 

Having political experience from the age of 17, Foster was very much seen as a ‘rising star’ within the world of Northern Irish politics.  Foster left the UUP in 2004 for the DUP, where she quickly made her mark. She served as Minister for the Environment, Minister for Enterprise and Minister for Finance. Foster knew her own strength and ability as a leader within the party and when the DUP leader at the time, Peter Robinson, stepped aside temporarily, Foster took centre stage as acting DUP leader.  Eventually in 2015 she took all duties to hand permanently, becoming the first female to lead the stridently patriarchal DUP.

The Highs and Lows of Foster’s Time in Power

Foster has shown some values never seen before in Northern Ireland. In addressing a PinkNews reception in Belfast, she was the first DUP leader to attend an LGBTQ+ event. Her statements, although still conservative, could be seen as a small step towards a more modern DUP: Foster stated that even though she opposed same-sex-marriage, she valued and acknowledged the contribution the LGBTQ+ community made in Northern Ireland, and requested that differing views be respected. This demonstrates a contrast with the more stubbornly conservative elements of the party, with her comments standing almost antithetic to the views of traditionalist characters, such as Edwin Poots. 

Foster has been committed to business and enterprise development in Northern Ireland. She was responsible for the rollout of ultra-fast broadband connections, which were designed to enhance communications with international offerings. Fighting the cause of private enterprise was also extremely important for Foster; her work with mobile phone companies and saving Bombardier jobs brought investment of £500 million to the Northern Irish economy. 

Success was relatively short-lived for Foster with the collapse of the power-sharing Executive. In 2016, Sinn Féin walked out in protest at the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal after a whistle-blower revealed that the scheme had overspent by £400m. Despite this, and the strident calls for the scheme to close, it remained open for an extra two-weeks under Foster’s watch. Foster took a big hit with the news that the Northern Irish budget would lose £400m over the next 20 years as a result of the scheme’s mismanagement. This scandal was a breeding ground for calls for Foster to resign as First Minister.

In her personal life, Foster was also dealing with controversies. Foster sued TV doctor Christian Jessen for defamation when he claimed she had engaged in an extramarital affair with a protection officer. Jessen made the allegations in a tweet in December 2019, retweeted more than 500 times, which he followed up with other ‘aggravating tweets’. In May 2021, Mr Justice McAlinden ordered that damages of £125,000 and Foster’s legal costs be paid. It is without question that these allegations would have posed strain to Foster’s career, perhaps even costing her a few supporters among the more conservative members of her party.

In April 2021, 80% of DUP MPs and MLAs signed a vote of no confidence in Foster. Sources close to the party expressed fears that Foster was becoming “too moderate”; however, the most prominent point surrounding lack of confidence in Foster was the emergence of an Irish Sea Border due to the Northern Irish Protocol. On the 28th April she announced her resignation and stepped down as First Minister of Northern Ireland at the end of June. It seems that Foster made attempts to be too liberal in a party that has very stringent, conservative unionist views and that aspires to govern Northern Ireland as a blue-print of the United Kingdom. 

Northern Ireland in a Post-Foster World

A number of issues face Northern Ireland in the wake of Foster’s resignation. The DUP’s strong pro-Brexit stance has led to problems – while they vehemently reject the Northern Irish Protocol, there is also a general consensus that there cannot be a return of the hard border. This conflict of ideals is something that no one has yet offered any type of meaningful solution to. 

Since the ruthless ousting of Foster, an obvious lack of leadership has contributed to a plummet in support for the DUP.  Foster’s initial successor, Edwin Poots, served as party leader for under three weeks before being ousted himself following his insistence to nominate Paul Givan as First Minister. However, his short time in office saw the deeply conservative elements of the DUP seep to the fore. Poots is a Young Earth Creationist – meaning he rejects the Big Bang Theory and the Theory of Evolution. He has banned blood donations from gay people, and has expressed his intention to extend this embargo to those who have had sex with people in Africa or with prostitutes. He claimed that the incidence rate of Covid-19 was six times higher in nationalist areas than in unionist areas. This tension between religion and science was something Foster had, perhaps wisely, shied away from as it appears to be an outdated attitude in a modern Northern Irish society.

Some power-sharing issues have been left behind with the introduction of the New Decade New Approach (NDNA) in January 2020. This included long awaited nationalist plans for the promotion of both the Irish and Ulster-Scots languages. However, these schemes are yet to be implemented and are proving to be a thorny issue. Following Foster’s resignation as DUP leader and First Minister, Sinn Féin refused to nominate a new deputy minister unless the Irish language legislation was brought forward. Poots agreed to a deal following intervention from Westminster, and this was a key factor in his resignation after 21 days. Evidently the issue surrounding Irish language legislation in the North is far from over. 

Since then, Jeffrey Donaldson has taken seat as DUP leader. He faces a steep task ahead, as next May voters will have the final say on how things stand. A LucidTalk Poll indicates that we might see a Sinn Féin First Minister, as they top the poll with 25% of votes. It would be a very different political picture in Northern Ireland then, with socialist, leftist views under the leadership of Michelle O’Neill. The DUP has even lost out as the most popular Unionist party as they trail behind the UUP on 16%, as well as the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) on 14%. 

The road ahead for the DUP is a turbulent and uncertain one, as it seems that faith has been lost in what once was the North’s most dominant Party.