The defenestration of Arlene Foster as leader of the DUP and First Minister of Northern Ireland was both overdue and unfair Overdue, because the real crisis of her leadership was only a year into it, with the renewable heating scandal of 2016-17. If she had done then as Peter Robinson did, and stepped back for a few weeks pending an investigation which would probably have given her enough of a figleaf to resume work with dignity, the Assembly would not have collapsed in 2017 and she would not have made the ill-chosen remarks during that election campaign which destroyed any perception that she was willing to look beyond her own electoral silo. Those were both very bad choices that she made, which should have meant the end to her leadership four years ago.
But instead, the DUP pushed her out last week over an important but frankly niche issue: she was not prepared to follow her fellow Assembly members and vote against a resolution condemning gay conversion therapy. Not that she was exactly on the right side of that particular argument, but she was closer to it than her party, who should have abstained with her rather than rise to the bait. (I cannot find Martyn Turner's cartoon of a new exciting children's toy, the Orange Action Man, who is easy to wind up.) Retreating to the citadel is a tactic, not a strategy, and unless you have reinforcements lurking over the hill or across the water, it's a losers' tactic.
The DUP rank and file also blamed her for the hugely unsatisfactory outcome of the Brexit process, but that is not particularly her fault; the entire party supported the destruction of Theresa May's premiership over a proposed deal with the EU that was actually better from the DUP's point of view than the one they actually got with Boris Johnson. The DUP are neither the first nor the last people to be betrayed by Boris Johnson, who has broken faith with everyone he has ever worked with or slept with, and while Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds can be fairly criticised for falling into that trap, it's not fair for the rest of the party, which was equally seduced by Boris, to make that criticism.
Arlene has always been friendly and pleasant to me personally, even though she has not always liked what I say. The last time I saw her, at the May 2019 European election count in Magherafelt, she was chatty and cheerful to me while pointedly ignoring the person I was with, who had annoyed her somehow (I never got the full story). I am not hugely surprised that she intends to leave politics completely now. Her vision is a little larger than her party's, and at present that doesn't fit the direction they want to go, which is to appeal ever more strongly to a diminishing pool of voters.
I am going to break the mould of popular commentary and not dump on Edwin Poots. He has said and done a lot of very stupid, wrong and inflammatory things, and his judgement has often been questionable. But there was one moment when he really did rise to the occasion. Back in January 2018, after a brutal few days starting with an ill-advised tweet by one of Sinn Féin's MPs (who later resigned, the first member of parliament to be brought down by his own social media), he put in a very statesmanlike TV performance which helped to draw a line under it, responding to an even better performance from John O'Dowd (who I hope will follow Poots to the top spot in his own party in due course). This is worth a watch.
Speaking of Sinn Féin, I was invited onto BBC Radio Ulster on Thursday (here, about 55 minutes in) to comment on the extraordinary developments in Derry, where the entire local leadership of the party has been fired by the party centrally. As a former central campaign organiser for a Northern Irish party myself, this seems to me a very drastic move. Even in a party with as centralised a structure as SF, local operations depend on volunteer support and goodwill, and local leaders tend to have a strong local support base among members and sympathisers (that's how they become local leaders). SF must have felt centrally that the incumbent Derry leadership's level of support from local members was so low that destroying their credibility in public, rather than quietly mobilising additional resources in private, was the right way to go.
Not that there was not a very serious problem for the party in the city. Having narrowly won the Westminster seat in 2017, SF's vote in December 2019 sliiped back to the levels of the early 1990s, pre-peace process, and the SDLP got what I think was their best vote share ever in a Westminster election. In the 2019 local elections, SF lost five out of their sixteen seats on the Derry and Strabane district council, three of them in the three electoral areas west of the Foyle which include the historic city centre. While in all the other parliamentary constituencies west of the Bann, SF have comfortably eclipsed the SDLP as the leading Nationalist party, Derry remained competitive, and Martin McGuiness's death removed their strongest local asset.
But what a lot of commentators have missed is that there is quite a large chunk of uncommitted voters in Derry. In Westminster elections they historically tended to vote for John Hume and then Mark Durkan, and in 2017, as a tribute to McGuinness, SF were able to temporarily capture more of that vote than usual. But in Assembly and local elections, these voters have supported independent candidates, and recently to a certain extent Eamonn McCann's People Before Politics, if they voted at all. Given the demographics, most of these voters are were brought up as Catholics, but they do not necessarily vote for Nationalist parties.
This is part of the wider phenomenon that I have been pointing to for a long time. While demographic determinists get all excited about this year's census and the possibility that it will show more Catholics than Protestants in Northern Ireland, the fact is that the biggest growth will certainly be in the section of the population that does not feel comfortable being labelled as either, and whose vote cannot be taken for granted by any party, or by supporters of either the Union or a United Ireland. At his height, Peter Robinson was able to corral a significant part of that support for a mature DUP that offered continuity and stability in partnership government, and successfully rode out his own personal scandals. (Some commentators - indeed some leading DUP members - in the last few days have forgotten that there was a time when the DUP was able to make a credible pitch for centrist votes, but it's really not very long ago.)
I wrote two years ago (scanned here) that these voters are the convinceable middle who historically have conditionally supported the Union, but can foreseeably be persuaded to join a united Ireland, if three things happen:
- Brexit turns out badly (✔️)
- Unionism continues to be worse than Nationalism at appealing to its own core vote and not engaging with the centre (✔️)
- There is a better offer on the table from Nationalists (currently quite far from being achieved, and in particular the need for Nationalists to find a convincing narrative on health services is even more acute after the last year).
Nothing is certain in politics, but the current direction of travel is clear.