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Arlene Foster

Arlene Foster. Photo: NICVA / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

Chris Bambery on the significance of Arlene Foster's resignation as head of the DUP and Northern Ireland's First Minister

It entails a huge stretch of the imagination to consider Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s First Minister, as too great a liberal. But that’s how 80 percent of the Democratic Unionist Party, the party she leads, views her. The final straw was that she abstained on Gay Aversion “Therapy” rather than vote for it as they wished.

Now Foster has resigned as head of the Democratic Unionist Party, and consequently as First Minister. It follows a letter of no confidence in her and the party leadership which was sent to her, signed by 22 of the DUP's 27 MLAs and four MPs.

Concern has grown among party members over recent changes to Northern Ireland's abortion laws the commitment to implement an Irish language act, same sex marriage, policing as well as the recent gay conversion debate at Stormont. Next year will see assembly elections.

Crucial components of the party are Free Presbyterians – Christian evangelicals and members of the church created by DUP founder and its first leader, Ian Paisley.

In her resignation statement she said:

"I understand the misogynistic criticisms that female public figures have to take and sadly it's the same for all women in public life.”

Foster is no feminist and would never describe herself as such. Like the rest of the party she is socially conservative but not socially conservative enough. But the fact the DUP’s first ever woman leader cites misogyny in her farewell statement speaks volumes.

But the biggest issue affecting the DUP is the deep resentment that there is in effect a border between Northern Ireland and Britain as part of the post-Brexit settlement with the EU. The border with the Irish Republic, an EU member, remains open.

Boris Johnson addressed a DUP conference three years ago promising no border between the statelet and Britain but there is. He has little or no understanding of Ireland and this was another promise he casually broke for self-advantage.

Foster and the DUP supported Brexit, believing the promises of Tory Brexiteers. On the day Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU. The end result is a growing sense that a United Ireland is the only way to resolve the subsequent mess but that feeds into the insecurity of hard-line unionists and loyalists.

Northern Ireland’s unionist and loyalist population feels a deep sense of unease and a long-held sense of vulnerability. Ever since the creation of the state they have felt under siege looking across the border at the Republic with suspicion, convinced the IRA and Sinn Fein are working with the Dublin government, Washington, the Vatican, the European Union and Uncle Tom Cobbley.

The rioting that exploded in Loyalist areas earlier this month over the new border only halted out of respect for the late Prince Philip (hard to see young rioters in Brixton or Tottenham doing that!).

This siege sense of vulnerability stems back to the creation of Northern Ireland a century ago. I will be writing more on this but sufficient to state that Northern Ireland’s border was drawn up by British civil servants to ensure a substantial, permanent Unionist majority – three counties of nine-county Ulster were omitted because they would have brought in too many nationalists.

It was also a state born in sectarian violence, in the main directed against nationalists. Loyalist murder groups were enlisted into the armed, 100 percent unionist police auxiliary force, the B Specials.

A Special Powers Act gave the Unionist government dictatorial powers and internment without trial was implemented in each decade of Unionist rule, from 1921-1974.

The nationalist population was systematically discriminated against, barred from all sorts of jobs, and with local government boundaries gerrymandered so that Northern Ireland’s second city, Derry, with a nationalist majority was administered by a Unionist run council.

This did not benefit ordinary Protestants; wages were lower and unemployment than in Britain and the high spending on security meant little to go round on education, welfare, housing and infrastructure.

The Democratic Unionist Party was formed by Ian Paisley in 1971. He had built his political career organising physically blocking civil rights marches and anti-Catholic speeches. From the start the DUP rejected any watering down of Unionist rule. Paisley and his successor Peter Robinson were prepared at various points to work with loyalist paramilitaries and would periodically threaten civil war.

In 2007 Paisley entered into a power sharing deal with Sinn Fein whereby the DUP took the First Ministership of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Sinn Fein the Deputy Ministry. It seemed a remarkable shift but in reality it seemed to signal the DUP’s hegemony among the Unionists.

It also reflected a key flaw in the Northern Ireland peace progress. Parties which identify with one side of the sectarian divide gain great advantage over those which choose not to self-identity as such. It reinforces and reflects a state where walls divide communities and sectarianism remains.

Indeed as the demographics shift, the Unionist majority is in doubt. Belfast itself is now majority nationalist, something unthinkable in 1921.

The unionists and loyalists see things slipping away from what remains of their grasp and feel betrayed by Johnson and the British elite.

Foster took over as leader in 2015 and two years later the Northern Ireland Executive ceased to function over a major corruption scandal involving her. It was three years before it was re-formed.

If there is a leadership contest, it will be the first in the DUP's 50-year history.

The adjective Democratic in the party’s title is a misnomer. The only people who will vote on Foster’s successor will be the DUP’s MLAs and MPs.

Nothing is inevitable in history – we make it not in circumstances of our choosing – but the very fact that the issue that prompted Foster’s resignation, her abstention on a vote in support of Gay Aversion “Therapy,” feeds into a growing belief that it is time to call an end to the existence of Northern Ireland.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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