The leadership strategy of Arlene Foster, the Democratic Unionists’ first woman leader since the party was founded in 1971, could ironically dictate the future composition of the next Dail in Dublin.
Ms Foster – originally a high-profile Assembly member with the rival Ulster Unionists before her defection to the then Ian Paisley-led DUP – will also take over the reins of First Minister in the Stormont Executive from Paisley’s successor, Peter Robinson.
In DUP terms, she is seen as a moderate and a part of the moderniser wing of the party established by Robinson. An Anglican by faith, she is a member of the Church of Ireland, now leading a party once dominated by the fundamentalist denomination – the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster – set up by Paisley himself in 1951.
The first real test of her leadership will come in May with the Stormont elections, where she will have to fend off electoral competition from a range of pro-Union rivals.
Her biggest challenge will be to ensure the DUP remains as the largest party in the Assembly, thereby guaranteeing that she remains, too, as First Minister.
In spite of fresh faces at the helm of the moderate Catholic SDLP, deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness’ Sinn Fein is odds-on to remain as the largest nationalist party. Indeed, depending on the extent of the republican rout of the SDLP, it could be Sinn Fein which emerges as the biggest party in Stormont.
This fact alone could have serious implications for the Dail. Former West Belfast Westminster MP Gerry Adams, and the Sinn Fein President, is now a TD (MP) in the Republic’s Parliament in Leinster House.
Campaigning strongly on an anti-austerity ticket, Adams aims to try and get Sinn Fein to clinch up to 40 seats in the Dail, thereby putting the party in a very commanding position to be a minority partner in the next Dublin coalition government, with Adams himself as Tanaiste (deputy Prime Minister).
But the decision on whether Adams ascends to this influential post depends not primarily on how many seats Sinn Fein can win, but on what other Dail parties would be willing to share power with the Provisional IRA’s political wing?
Enter the influence of Foster at this point. The DUP has developed in the past three decades from a movement which once campaigned on a ‘Smash Sinn Fein’ council ticket in 1985, to the party which signed the St Andrews Agreement in 2006 which heralded power-sharing between the DUP and Sinn Fein at Stormont.
The main parties in the Republic are so far adopting a position of ‘no deals’ with Sinn Fein, preferring instead to see if a rainbow coalition of parties could be achieved to freeze out Sinn Fein.
Current Southern Prime Minister (or Taoiseach) Enda Kenny of Fine Gael is expected to retain the post and lead the largest party in a future coalition. As a Centre Right movement, Fine Gael would be ideologically opposed to any deal with Sinn Fein.
But a key question which Kenny must answer – if Foster’s DUP can share power with Sinn Fein at Stormont, why can’t Fine Gael form a coalition with Sinn Fein in Dublin?
Likewise, Foster should not underestimate the degree of ill-feeling against the DUP in the Unionist community in Northern Ireland because of power-sharing with Sinn Fein.
For the sake of party unity, Foster may have to sacrifice the DUP’s current politically cosy relationship with Sinn Fein – a move which could put further pressure on the Stormont Executive.
Although the DUP will be playing up the multi-million pound bonanza for Northern Ireland which came along with the last year’s Fresh Start Agreement, which saved the power-sharing institutions.
Foster must use her solicitor training to hold the three main factions within the DUP in check. She belongs to the modernising wing. Ranged against her behind closed doors are the remnants of the Christian fundamentalist wing which dominated the party for decades.
There is a third smaller, but no less vocal faction, which draws its support from the loyalist working class and views East Antrim Commons MP Sammy Wilson as its standard bearer.
Foster – like quite a few politicians who hold senior positions in the party – is just one of a number of former members of the rival Ulster Unionists.
If Foster fails to retain the First Minister’s post in May, her only way forward is to push for a merger of the DUP and UUP to form a single movement simply known as The Unionist Party.
- Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter