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Brian Rowan: Arlene's feathers are ruffled today, but the DUP itself is under pressure

Former BBC correspondent Brian Rowan looks at the embattled DUP leader’s position today.

Brian Rowan

IN A LONG game of political chess, we are now watching the endgame.

The quiet whispers and questions about Arlene Foster’s leadership of the DUP, that had become louder in the early weeks of 2021, now the headlines of a challenge with talk of “no way back” and decisions within days.

For unionism, the Northern Ireland centenary is becoming more of a crossroads than a celebration.

Foster has lost the confidence of the bulk of her Assembly team at Stormont and too many of the party’s MPs at Westminster.

As it develops, this play inside the DUP will stretch into a wider frame. The Stormont Executive, restored a little over a year ago, again hangs by a thread.

Fragile politics

There is talk it will not last. That there could be an early Assembly election and, then, another negotiation.

After that three-year absence of government from 2017 through to 2020, there will be little tolerance for this.

The New Decade, New Approach agreement of January 2020, shaped by then Northern Ireland Secretary of State Julian Smith and Tanaiste Simon Coveney, gave Stormont its last chance.

A disinterested Prime Minister in London has switched off from Northern Ireland. Boris Johnson has more than enough on his own plate to worry about this place.

Nor is he trusted.

It was his deal that created the Irish Sea border and made Northern Ireland different from the rest of the UK. On his list, Brexit was more important than the Union.

And, this is the tremor – the earthquake moment for the DUP and the unionist/loyalist community. The Union on the line. Arlene Foster’s leadership on the line – perhaps Stormont on the line.

All of this, the consequence of walking up the blind alley of Brexit. 

No longer holding the balance

There have been few highlights in the DUP story since the collapse of Stormont in January 2017 – the RHI scandal the straw and opportunity that finally broke its back.

It could easily have fallen in any number of rows before then.

In the Assembly election in March that year, unionists lost their overall majority in the Stormont chamber. But within months, with 10 MPs elected, held the balance of power at Westminster.

It is here, they are accused of overplaying their hand – overstating their influence – not reading the tea leaves. Not reading Johnson. 

They could not stop his sea border deal, were left at the altar – and left to explain back home. Inside their own community, they are being blamed for the mess.

The fallout has been a heavy price.

A ‘day of reckoning’ in the 2019 General Election when Westminster leader Nigel Dodds and Emma Little-Pengelly lost their seats and the party failed to win North Down.

The post-Brexit conversation has been a louder debate on a ‘New Ireland’. This was not meant to be the unionist story of 2021.

Nor is it just about Arlene Foster. What about those who got lost in the London lights – those who shouted loudest for Brexit? 

Arlene Foster is today’s headline. Soon the spotlight will shift to that wider Stormont frame.

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If it falls, this time, there may not be two governments waiting to lift it up again.

In such a scenario – that ‘New Ireland’ project will gain more momentum and pace. This is the what next that goes beyond the Good Friday Agreement.

Brian Rowan is a former BBC correspondent in Belfast and author of the recently published ‘Political Purgatory – the battle to save Stormont and the play for a New Ireland.

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