THE SUMMER IS typically silly season in the political world. However with rising sectarian tensions and increasing hostilities between the DUP and Sinn Fein, rumours have begun that Peter Robinson’s time as First Minister may be coming to an end.
Robinson, who succeeded Ian Paisley in May 2008, has during his five years in office survived scandals and electoral threats from his Unionist rivals. Despite his resilience, people within his own party appear to be preparing for life after he steps down as leader with the focus on his replacement zeroing in on former Finance Minister Sammy Wilson and Enterprise Minister, Arlene Foster.
It is truly amazing that the most secure Unionist leader for nearly half a century is seemingly having his leadership eroded by a series of bad headlines and politically damaging U-turns. Yet all this recent speculation has got me thinking: how would either Wilson or Foster fare as the DUP leader and First Minister?
Let’s take both prospective leaders in turn. First up we have Sammy Wilson. Undoubtedly the closest thing Northern Ireland has to Boris Johnson, Wilson was charged with steering the province’s economy through the worst recession since the 1930s when he became Finance Minister in June 2009.
When he took on the job, Wilson had the reputation of being the epitome of the party man who was useful at the party conference in rousing the DUP rank and file. An Alistair Darling or Tim Geithner he was not.
Nevertheless, Wilson managed to garner a certain degree of confidence during his time as a minister as he regularly preached fiscal restraint to an executive that seemed content to continue spending; he was in charge when the block grant that the British government gives to the assembly was sharply cut. In handling problems like this, he demonstrated a great deal of political skill and successfully managed to steer a four year budget through the assembly.
However, Wilson does have some terrible blind spots as a politician. The tendency to play the role of the party hatchet man leads him to make some rather illogical decisions.
As I mentioned above, Wilson had regularly preached a message of austerity, yet during the flag protest he ordered new flag poles for government buildings at a cost of £10,000 to the tax payer.
More recently he attended a court hearing in support for Ruth Patterson as she faced charges over comments she made on a Facebook page. All this was done to pander to the party faithful. Instead of distancing himself from this type of destructive politics, Wilson had at times appeared all too readily to identify himself with it.
So what about the other main contender for the DUP leadership, Arlene Foster? Since she defected from the UUP in 2003 her star has continued to rise. Widely regarded as the most effective and competent minister in the executive, Foster has through her own determination and talent managed to become the bookmakers favourite to become the next First Minister.
To even be considered as a potential successor in such a tribal party as the DUP is a remarkable achievement in itself given her UUP past.
This position of heir apparent did not happen by accident. Since devolution was restored Foster has, in the variety of portfolios she has served in, managed to achieve some real successes – whether with the location of the NYSE/Euronext in Belfast or the relative ease with which she temporarily took on the duties of First Minister in 2010 when Robinson stepped down for three weeks.
Outside of her ministerial performance, Foster has shown that she can be an effective advocate for the party as she led the charge against a border poll earlier this year winning her debates against Pearse Doherty and Alex Maskey. This mix of competence and strong communication is what makes her such a serious contender for the leadership of a party of which she has been a member of for less than a decade.
Then again, as I ponder what a possible Foster leadership would be like I honestly draw a blank. I don’t for example know what specific polices she would pursue if she got the job. How does she view the party’s relationship with Sinn Fein? And how would she be different from her predecessor? All of these questions remain unanswered.
At least with Wilson, despite his flaws, the electorate would know exactly what they were getting. In a place that suffers from frequent bouts of instability, these grey areas in Fosters positions could become a liability.
Potential culture shock
So there you have it – a brief look at the two likely successors to Peter Robinson. My view is that neither of them is guaranteed an easy victory and whoever does win will do so narrowly.
In a party that is not used to internal divisions, the culture shock over divisive leadership contest could prove to be the first real challenge it will have faced in nearly 20 years.
Robinson’s task over the coming months will have to be ensuring that his departure, if it happens, does not become the party’s undoing.
David McCann is a PhD researcher in Irish politics at the University of Ulster. To read more articles by David for TheJournal.ie click here.