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The Briefing

AIKEN Weekly Digest – 30th April

AIKEN Weekly Digest – 30th April Banner

by Aiken PR

30/04/2021

It’s the final day of a whirlwind month for NI politics.

Arlene Foster announced her decision to step down as leader of the DUP this week, topping it only by saying she would be quitting both politics and the party. Conspiracy theorists amongst us, and we all enjoy it from time to time, will note that Line of Duty is due to climax this weekend and it is clear that once ‘H’ was finally unmasked, that person’s position would soon become untenable. Oh, to hear Ted’s reply.

In reality, it has been evident that Foster has been as much a hostage to the will of her party as she was the leader. That was clearly in evidence on the Northern Ireland protocol where she sought to put the issue to bed last year before being roundly undermined by senior elected figures in the party. The Agriculture Minister, Edwin Poots, and the front runner to succeed Foster, has taken a much more obstructionist and critical stance to what has become to be seen as a totemic challenge to the Union and a bedrock of the party’s political principles. That has undoubtedly won him admirers within the party and outside of it, while at the same time hardening attitudes of those most likely already predisposed against. Poots’ position on LGBT rights and the abstention of Foster on a motion to do with gay conversion therapy being another fundamental point of difference.

His nearest competitors for leader, should they choose to contest, are expected to be Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Gavin Robinson, both MPs. Of course, as MPs, they could not take up a position in the Executive and both are facing subtle criticisms for lacking a hard or vocal enough stance on several social and political issues. As it stands, Foster’s successor seems likely to pursue a hard line and vocally so. Poots would fit that bill, but he will face the same issues as Foster including having little or no clout on the short term implementation of the protocol.

These changes undoubtedly present further challenge to the Executive’s stability. Foster has, not without notable exceptions, managed to work with deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill. Though there have been fallouts, her successor will be keen to mark a difference from areas in which Foster had begun to look weak. Accordingly, acrimony, even stage managed, should be expected in anything remotely contentious or constitutionally related. With the DUP languishing in the polls, there will be no rush into something that could lead to an election. And, for what it’s worth, the other main parties have voiced such sentiments. However, with Sinn Féin keen to reaffirm the commitments made by all in New Decade, New Approach, the Irish language act could yet again become an issue that capsizes Stormont if a leader such as Poots refuses to engage on a point he argues has been ‘weaponised’. Though the criticisms against Foster included her stance on social issues, the perceived attack on Unionism and its inability to respond were fundamental issues for many of those who moved against her. As such, even if it is not Poots, or the role of leader and First Minister are split, policy and political spats along community lines seems the likely outcome. As such, if the next leader fails to adopt a pragmatic approach to his Executive colleagues and their policy positions, the Assembly term, and more, could have a shorter life span than was hoped for.

That being said, the possibility of Stormont falling must be caveated against the reality that Northern Ireland politics tends to toe that precipice quite regularly while only sometimes falling over it. With the UK and EU being the parties involved in the negotiating and the implementation of the protocol, crashing Stormont and relegating ministers to spokespeople with no practical power seems counterproductive. With Northern Ireland not being a party to talks, the most effective way of ensuring the DUP voice is heard is by using Executive power to make the lives of those in Brussels and London more difficult. As such, it remains in the interests of the next leader of the DUP to maintain the Executive’s functioning.

Elsewhere, the Taoiseach outlined the reopening plan throughout May and June, saying the country is in a better place and the Covid–19 strategy “is working” thanks to the efforts of people and the vaccination programme. People will be allowed to travel across the country from 10 May. On the same day hairdressers, barbers and beauticians will reopen by appointment only, along with libraries, museums, galleries and other cultural attractions, while click–and–collect for non–essential retail will also resume. In the UK, the Prime Minister continues his battle against allegations of sleaze in relation to the funding of Downing Street’s dreadful refurbishment. Despite an investigation by the Electoral Commission, the Conservatives continue to open a gap between Labour in recent polling, with the Hartlepool by–election targeted heavily by the Tories. Failure to return an MP for the constituency could prove could hugely damaging for Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer in his so far stuttering leadership career.