Arlene Foster: ‘If the union is to succeed, we need to be a bigger tent’

When political party leaders are ousted, some shrug, some cry, some rage against the dying of the light. Arlene Foster descends from her chauffeur-driven Land Rover smiling, even though she has little to smile about. 

Northern Ireland’s first minister is the latest casualty of Brexit. She has, in her predecessor’s words, been “humiliated” and left as “roadkill” by her own colleagues. These are some of her last hours as leader of the Democratic Unionist party; she is due to step down as first minister at the end of June. 

“I’m quite philosophical about where I am at the moment,” the 50-year-old former lawyer insists. “I wish it had happened differently, but it has happened.” It is only over the course of lunch that the smile slips. Her ousting has been “pretty poor”, “very brutal”, “just awful”, she tells me. “People are [saying], what a way to end your career.”

This year marks a century since the formation of Northern Ireland, and 50 years since the creation of the DUP, its hardline unionist party. Even now, the sharpness of their politics can surprise. 

A politician since the age of 25, Foster has been a polarising figure in a polarising political set-up. She came to UK prominence in 2017, when former prime minister Theresa May unexpectedly lost her parliamentary majority. The DUP had been seen as a fringe religious relic at Westminster. Suddenly its votes counted. Foster and colleagues extracted £1bn in public spending in exchange for propping up May’s Conservative government. They were lauded as the master negotiators, the puppetmasters. 

But Brexit talks did not unfold to their advantage. Foster was outraged by May’s proposals, claiming they detached Northern Ireland from Great Britain. Boris Johnson took over, promised that he wouldn’t betray her, then did. His Brexit deal allowed customs checks in the Irish Sea, and he won a majority for it. 

By 2020, the DUP’s days of influence were over. Northern Ireland’s businesses and citizens were left with the mess of Brexit bureaucracy and disrupted identity. The DUP’s religious right, angered by Foster’s moderate line on abortion and banning gay conversion therapy, mobilised the ill-feeling to topple her. 

To her critics, Foster is the leader who won the lottery, then tore up the winning ticket. “The art is knowing when to cash your chips in,” says one May supporter. “The DUP could be very adept tacticians, but they were utterly lacking in strategy,” says another. Many unionists can’t understand why the DUP has brought the union into question by supporting a hard Brexit, which most Northern Irish voters opposed.

We are meeting in Fermanagh, the county where Foster grew up and still lives, the place that she comes for sanity. Here her influence remains. When I called to book a table for lunch, her chosen restaurant told me that it couldn’t serve lunch — it never serves lunch. Then they discovered that my guest was Foster, and the only questions were what time and any dietary requests. It turns out she supported the restaurant’s planning application. “Constituency work, you know?” she laughs, as we head inside. 

Fermanagh might offer a glimpse of Northern Ireland’s future. The constituency swings between electing unionists and nationalists. Sinn Féin, the DUP’s Republican nemesis, has recently prevailed. 

All political careers end in failure, to paraphrase Enoch Powell, whose own political career ended in Northern Ireland. The real question is what happens to the ideas behind them. 

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Neither Northern Ireland nor unionism is in great shape. Petrol bombs were thrown on the streets last month. A narrow majority of Northern Irish voters expect the region to leave the UK within 25 years. English voters like the Union flag, but their desire to accommodate Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales politically is in doubt.

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Meanwhile, Foster’s successor as DUP leader, Edwin Poots, is a traditionalist who does not believe in evolution. The party has fallen far behind Sinn Féin in polls. 

“For me, the union is a rational political ideal,” says Foster. She no longer trusts the DUP with it. She plans to leave the party altogether — refusing, extraordinarily, to remain in a club that won’t have her as a leader. Why?

“Because I don’t agree with the direction of travel under Edwin’s leadership. I think we are regressing and becoming more narrow. It’s quite nasty, frankly. If the union is to succeed, we need to be a bigger tent . . . The plea I would make to the party is that, if they want to secure the union, then they have to have a wide vision for the union.” She is ready to rage against the dying of the light after all.

Having a restaurant open especially for you certainly improves the choice of tables. Foster nods to one overlooking the lake, which the French proprietor Pascal assures us is “one of the most beautiful waters in the world for pike”.

“I don’t have time to fish,” Foster laughs, before recognising her new reality. “I might be able to go out and fish now!” Pascal offers menus, but we decline. “You’re going to surprise me!” Foster tells him. The chef promises me “something very special”.

Ian Paisley, the late founder of the DUP and the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, blasted alcohol as “the devil’s buttermilk”. Foster simply orders a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. She has been the modernising face of the DUP: a professional, a woman, an Anglican. Staunch unionism, however, was never optional.

When she was eight, her father — a farmer and policeman — was shot in the head by the IRA. “I have a vivid memory of him crawling into the house on all fours, blood dripping from his head,” she says, tracing a line with a finger just above her eyebrow. Her father survived; her mother’s hair turned white overnight. 

Aged 17, Foster survived a bomb attack on her school bus. Catholic and Protestant pupils rode the bus together but were never friends. It wasn’t until Foster became the first member of her family to go to university that she mixed with the other community. 

She entered politics as an Ulster Unionist. She opposed the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, in protest at the release of IRA prisoners, and in 2004 defected to the hardline DUP. By 2007 she was a minister. In 2016 she was first minister, sharing power with Sinn Féin.

But two things happened almost immediately. First, the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal torched her technocratic image. This was an eco-scheme so badly designed that chicken farmers were paid to install boilers to heat empty sheds. It costs taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds. 

An inquiry revealed unrecorded meetings, incompetent officials and politicians unconcerned by wasteful spending because they (wrongly) thought that the UK Treasury was footing the bill. Foster took little responsibility, even though a whistleblower had contacted her with concerns. 

Then there was Brexit. The DUP was always Eurosceptic: Paisley, ever the anti-Catholic, claimed the European project reflected a “satanic power”. Foster’s stance was less clear. In June 2016, she tweeted more about the European football championship than the referendum. “I had been quite frustrated by state aid rules,” she says. “I wanted Brexit to happen.”

But she distances herself from the consequences. “It has been a difficult period,” she tells me. 

We tuck into our dishes — a medley of mushrooms and mussels for me, a coalition of blue lobster, sea bass and scallops for her. Among the Brexit difficulties were meetings with Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator. “He used to start off very suave in English, and then we would start about how this was disgraceful, and then he’d get angrier and angrier, until he started to speak in French!”

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What most rankles about the Brexit deal, she says, is that parcels from Britain now arrive with customs declarations. “It doesn’t matter if you are a unionist or a nationalist: if you are having to pay extra for something coming from the same country, it can be very distressing.” 

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There have been riots. Would things have been even worse had it not been for the pandemic? “Oh yes, absolutely . . . Things were going quite badly wrong and then His Royal Highness Prince Philip passed away [in April] . . . I was really concerned about that weekend. Once he passed away, people pulled back.”


The Watermill Lodge
Kilmore Quay, Lisnaskea, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland

Panache of lobster, scallops and sea bass with vanilla and white wine beurre blanc £24.95

Casserole of mussels with a Mediterranean sauce and stuffed courgettes, followed by fruit salad £24.95

Sauvignon blanc x 2 £15

Coffee x 2 £5.80

Total (incl. tip) £80.70

Could it bubble up again? “Yes, and I have told [cabinet office minister] David Frost that I am concerned about the summer and people have more freedom to protest. Of course, protest is perfectly legitimate, but you worry about what develops out of protest.” 

A 19-year-old loyalist representative, Joel Keys, told MPs this month that violence could not be taken off the table. “When you hear somebody as young as that talking about violence, it really does set you back in your shoes. We have lots more to do, especially in urban working-class areas.”

On Brexit, her solution is that the protocol, which creates a special post-Brexit status for Northern Ireland, be altered “in a very fundamental way. There’s no point in tinkering around with it.

“Look, I don’t doubt that Theresa’s a unionist and Boris is a unionist, but when it comes to a choice, we were the people who had to be sacrificed. Boris was almost myopic in his desire to get Brexit done.”

Surely she has at least learnt not to trust the prime minister? He now literally has a bridge to sell her, connecting Northern Ireland and Scotland. Does she believe he will build it? “I hope so. It’s a tunnel now, is it not?” Come on, I say. She laughs. “He told me last Thursday that he was talking to the engineers in the afternoon. He wants to be Isambard Kingdom Brunel!”

If the protocol is so bad, does she regret not toppling May in 2018? “No, because we did achieve quite a lot for Northern Ireland through the confidence-and-supply agreement. We are going to have the best broadband infrastructure in the whole of the UK.”

So was there anything the DUP could have done differently? Foster exhales, and blames May for accepting there could be no Irish border checks. “All of the reasons I voted for Brexit are still good reasons. The difficulty has been the way in which the protocol has been worked through. And I think the Irish government has a lot to answer for.”

As I carve into some courgette, I recall Foster’s reason for leaving the Ulster Unionists in 2004 — that, time and time again, every problem was seen as “someone else’s fault”.

“That was just beautiful,” Foster calls out to Pascal, her plate empty but for a broccoli stalk. The DUP portrays itself as a family. Recent weeks have shown it to be a miserable one. Senior members circulated a letter of no confidence in Foster, but never gave it to her. Blindsided, she surrendered anyway. “There was a different way of doing it, but they chose to go in a very public way.” 

When Foster became first minister in 2016, Poots said her most important job would remain “that of a wife, mother and daughter”. How did she interpret that? “Well, how would you interpret it?” I know how my mother would interpret it: she’d be pretty annoyed. “Yeah . . . I’ve had everyday sexism since — women in politics just have to get on with things. But it was a very pointed remark.” Did he apologise? “Not at all.”

Would her ousting have been different if she were a man? “I don’t know, I can’t answer that.” She has also fought a libel case over false internet claims that she has had an affair with a protection officer, winning £125,000 in damages.

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Coffee and profiteroles have arrived. The gentle landscape outside belies the political reality. Northern Ireland has survived a century because a majority of residents, and the British government, have underwritten it. But there are cracks. In the Stormont assembly, unionists no longer have a majority. One possibility is that Sinn Féin becomes the largest party at the next election, and the DUP refuses to serve under a Sinn Féin first minister. Is there a problem coming down the track? “There is — a real problem,” says Foster. 

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Her own perceived intransigence over Brexit burnt through goodwill in the British Conservative party. Public spending in Northern Ireland is 20 per cent higher than the UK average, while public revenues are 16 per cent lower. “I know people in England sometimes get upset when they see how much subvention goes to Scotland and to Northern Ireland . . . We need to articulate why the union’s important.” 

I point out Foster is roughly as old as David Cameron when he left office. “I don’t know Lex Greensill!” she laughs. Would she accept a seat in the House of Lords? “I haven’t been offered a seat in the Lords, so I’ll wait to see what happens.” She also wants to encourage more women into politics.

Foster once infuriated nationalists by calling Sinn Féin a “crocodile” over the party’s demands for Irish language legislation. “It was misrepresented [but] I do regret all of that.” She has said she would probably leave Northern Ireland if there were ever a united Ireland. She insists it’s irrelevant. “I don’t think a united Ireland is coming in my lifetime. Because when people look at it rationally, they’ll say we’re much better off within the UK than in the Republic of Ireland.”

Foster is good company — not as grand as she is sometimes labelled. But after two hours with her, I can understand why the May government found her so hard to read. She talks reconciliation, then snaps back. She doesn’t quite engage, doesn’t quite take responsibility for the realities of where her policies have led. I sense that inviting Foster to lunch is one thing; trying to split the bill with her would be another. 

Afternoon sun warms the table. “The local estate agents were telling me it’s crazy the amount of people looking for homes in the countryside,” says Foster, twiddling her napkin. “Compared to where Northern Ireland was in the Seventies and Eighties, it is such a joy to live in it now.”

In 2011, a policeman called Ronan Kerr was murdered by loyalists. Foster’s middle child was aged 12. “He said: ‘Why would someone kill a policeman, mummy? I don’t understand.’ And I just thought, wow! When I was growing up, policemen were being killed, innocent people were being killed all the time.” 

Half of young voters identify as neither nationalist nor unionist. For politicians such as Foster, whose childhoods were marked by the Troubles, compromise has always been tinged with fear. “Reconciliation has happened, maybe not at the political level, but at the grassroots,” she says. A new generation has a task ahead. 

Henry Mance is the FT’s chief features writer

Data visualisation by Ian Bott

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Read more on Northern Ireland . . . 

Northern Ireland’s uneasy centenary

Drawing on decades of writing about the province, historian Marianne Elliott warns it is still far from overcoming sectarianism

Ireland’s bloody line of division

As Brexit brings the Irish border into sharper focus, three books attempt to explain the complex process of the island’s partition

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