John McDonagh and Martin Galvin speak to award winning journalist Suzanne Breen via telephone from Belfast about the reaction of the Unionist and Loyalist communities to the results of the recent snap election in The North of Ireland. (begins time stamp ~ 18:45)
Martin: With us on the line – we’re very fortunate we have two of the best known, prize winning journalists and commentators on the Irish situation. The first of them is Belfast-based Suzanne Breen. Suzanne, welcome back to Radio Free Éireann.
Suzanne: Thank you, Martin.
Martin: Suzanne, the last time we talked to you we were talking about ‘roll-over Republicanism’, we were talking about a situation where Arlene Foster, who’s the head of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), seemed to be unassailable. She had a big majority in Stormont. It seemed like she was a new beginning to the Democratic Unionist Party – a departure – somebody more moderate, more liberal, more open to the views of Nationalists and Catholics than certainly than the founding member of the party had been in his early days, Ian Paisley, or Peter Robinson had been in the early founding of the DUP. We’re now in a completely different situation. I just want to read a quote from an MLA, Members of the Legislative Assembly, a Unionist who lost her seat – Jo-Anne Dobson, she said this:
Arlene Foster has done more, in my living memory, against unionism by not stepping aside. The cost has been sixteen unionist seats. One woman has been responsible for five hard-working, good women losing their seats. She weakened unionism and helped the Irish nationalist cause. She projected an atmosphere of fear during the election. The election was a hammer-blow for Unionists. Why couldn’t Arlene Foster have just stepped aside?
How representative is that view – that somebody from a different party, but it’s an official Unionist party, who lost her seat – how representative is that comment of the attitude now within Unionism as to the election and how did things change so fast and so dramatically?
Suzanne: Well Arlene Foster has turned from being her party’s greatest asset to being its greatest liability. She was asked by Sinn Féin to stand aside for what would have been three weeks and she refused. I think her party and herself made a call that Sinn Féin was so addicted to holding power at Stormont and to the institutions that it would capitulate on this demand as it had given into the DUP before and been exceedingly tolerant and always climbed down and Sinn Féin didn’t do that. And Arlene Foster’s behaviour during the election campaign was so obnoxious to Nationalists that even the most moderate voters came out to oppose her. She talked about Republicans and Nationalists being ‘crocodiles’ that had an insatiable appetite and she used language that really belonged to the last century – language that wouldn’t have been expected to her and language that was interpreted as arrogant, patronising and sectarian. So while the DUP’s number of first preference votes in the election actually went up Sinn Féin’s votes rocketed and they came within just a thousand votes of being the main political party in Northern Ireland. The DUP won two hundred and twenty-five thousand four hundred and thirteen. Sinn Féin won two hundred and twenty-four thousand two hundred and forty-five. And also, very importantly, while the DUP won twenty-eight seats in the new Assembly Sinn Féin won twenty-seven and if you add in the left-wing People Before Profit, who believe in a united Ireland even though they don’t class themselves as Nationalists, the two parties are virtually tied. The DUP lost ten seats in this election. Sinn Féin lost only one which was quite an achievement given that the number of seats were decreasing from a hundred and eight to ninety.
So Sinn Fein is now neck-and-neck with the DUP and Nationalists, when you add in the SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party) are neck-and-neck with Unionists, which is the DUP and the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). So really Arlene Foster has brought her party and Unionism from a position of great strength, just ten months ago, to a position now of huge weakness. The election result has been a huge psychological blow for Unionists. There is talk now of Unionist pacts, Unionist coalitions and Unionism is really under pressure and feels much, much weaker than it has at any point in the past two decades. And what a lot of Unionists are saying is this all could have been avoided, this election needn’t have happened had Arlene Foster stood aside before Christmas for three short weeks – this really wouldn’t have happened and had she not angered the Nationalist community so much during the election campaign. Yes, her own party’s vote held up but she drove so many Nationalists into voting for Sinn Féin and she has been described as Gerry Adams’ and Sinn Féin’s greatest recruiting sergeant either. So her message of loathing against Sinn Féin brought out her own supporters but it brought out far, far more Nationalists. It was a double-edged sword.
Martin: Suzanne, they are now in talks. I believe the first week is just about finished. They have three weeks to convene a new government wherein Sinn Féin would agree to nominate a Deputy First Minister, the DUP would nominate the First Minister and that must be done in order to convene a government. Sinn Féin has said so far that they will not go in and will not do that unless Arlene Foster stands aside while the RHI, the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal, is dealt with. They’re in talks right now. How does Arlene Foster – during the campaign she portrayed Gerry Adams as some kind of bogeyman, she was there to stop his agenda. She said Michelle O’Neill, who would be the candidate or the leader of Sinn Féin in The North, was merely somebody that Gerry Adams had installed and would instruct and was not an independent person. How does Arlene Foster, having campaigned on the basis of: A vote for me is a vote to stop them and block them – how does she now go into negotiations and try to form a government with Sinn Féin within a couple of more weeks?
Suzanne: Well there’s always this game that is played between the DUP and Sinn Féin and there’s a big amount of hypocrisy in it. It was played ten months ago when the DUP election campaign was run on the grounds of ‘vote for Arlene because you might get Martin McGuinness as First Minister’. And yet after the election the parties settled down very happily in government together. In some ways they really need each other because all the fear they instill – if you don’t vote for me you get ‘them’ – that’s the game that encourages their voters to come out in large numbers but they do settle down and do do business after the election. The key question is here is whether Sinn Féin will do a u-turn on its demand that Arlene Foster step aside? The party is saying that she still does have to step aside until an inquiry into RHI is over. Now that inquiry could take between six months and probably actually a year and Sinn Féin has said that this is a red line for it. Now many people have heard of Sinn Féin red lines before and they do shift but it would be very, very hard for the party to surrender on this one. It has just won an election; it has a huge vote and there is a lot of anger in Nationalist areas against Arlene Foster and it would seem to be a pretty poor strategy if the party threw that away and alienated the voters that it is so happy to have won back because until now the whole drift in recent elections had been for a decreasing vote for Sinn Féin. It was very much losing touch with its grassroots, its voters were disillusioned and they have now been energised back into supporting the party and it would seem quite strange for Sinn Fein to throw this away and to immediately go into government with Arlene Foster.
What Sinn Féin is saying as a possible compromise is that Arlene Foster could be a minister in the new government but not First Minister, not having the top job but that she would get that job if and when she was exonerated by the public inquiry that is taking place. Now on the other hand, some people think that Sinn Féin is so wedded again to power at Stormont and will so much want to get the institutions up and running again that this will, this demand that Arlene step aside, will be brushed side. I think that’s pretty unlikely. I think Sinn Féin will, so to speak, hold onto its guns on this one and Arlene will make some kind of announcement that if an overall, if a big deal with Sinn Féin can be done for the sake of Northern Ireland she will step out of the limelight, out of being First Minister, for a period of months until the whole RHI issue is resolved.
John: (station identification) And with us on the line from Belfast is Suzanne Breen who writes for the Belfast Telegraph. Suzanne, this has been an earthquake within the Loyalist community and you read some of the reactions – can you tell us: Why is it that the Loyalist paramilitaries, say like the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), gets no support. And I read an article that there’s anger within the Loyalist paramilitaries, particularly the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), that they’re getting jittery and they’re thinking about going back to the guns and all this other stuff but there’s just sheer panic within the Loyalist community and that Gerry Adams might overplay his hand for a united Ireland but maybe describe for our audience: Why is there such a panic, and even in particularly with the Loyalist paramilitaries, about this vote?
Suzanne: Well it just – Unionist have been used to having quite a numerical lead over Nationalists in elections and you know – they’re used to ruling the roost and this really has put fear in them. As I said before it is a major psychological issue. They now see this on the march and this on the rise – Nationalist community – its commentators widely said that Arlene wakened the sleeping giant of Nationalist voters so you know they have a lot to get used to. I don’t believe for one second that it is going to lead to Loyalist paramilitaries restarting their campaign again. I think they were ultimately controlled, at some type of central level, by elements of the British state and I don’t think that that British state wants to destabilise Northern Ireland which is ticking away quite nicely at the minute. In terms of Unionist voters they have never really supported the Loyalist paramilitary parties. Even people who would support the Loyalist paramilitaries they tend to vote DUP at elections. The Loyalist paramilitary parties, the Progressive Unionist Party, which would be seen as the political wing of the UVF, it manages to get a few councillors elected but even gone are the days where it would get someone elected to the Assembly. Even when it was getting people elected to the Assembly it was only one or two members. It really didn’t catch on within the Unionist community and it’s not going to do that now but I think certain people sense fear that Loyalists back on the streets with their guns. I think that’s wrong. Loyalist paramilitaries are still active but it’s mainly in terms of extorting money from within their own community and intimidation. They’re not really active in terms of targeting Catholics.
Martin: Alright Suzanne, just we’re coming towards the end – I want to get off the sixty-four thousand dollar question: Mike Nesbitt, the leader of the official Ulster Unionist (Party), has resigned. How safe is Arlene Foster? Is there any movement within her party that she should stand aside permanently? And what happens next? We have a couple of weeks, if there is no deal there’s a possibility of a prospect of new elections or it could be an extension of time – what are your predictions as to Arlene Foster and what will happen next in terms of re-convening Stormont?
Suzanne: Well the Ulster Unionist leader, Mike Nesbitt, was actually very gracious, very dignified. He fell on his sword, took responsibility for his poor election result. Arlene Foster isn’t going to do that and she will not be shifted as DUP leader but the key question is: Will she step aside as First Minister of Northern Ireland while remaining DUP leader? Personally, I think she will. There are certainly senior people in the party who are briefing against her, who think that she has seriously damaged the party but she maintains the support of people like deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, and if the DUP moves against her it won’t be in the face of a very aggressive Sinn Féin because it just wouldn’t do that. It will be in the months ahead that she may be sidelined. She may find it difficult to get back the First Minister position but the DUP is not going to dump Arlene Foster just because Gerry Adams is asking – so that would look disastrous. There are three weeks for Sinn Féin and the DUP to reach a deal. Most observers believe that that is probably a very, very difficult task. No one would think that Northern Ireland is going to go back to direct rule. Probably the Secretary of State, James Brokenshire, will fiddle with the rules to allow devolution to somehow be suspended to give the parties maybe extra weeks or months to reach a deal. Another question is whether Sinn Féin actually does want a deal or does it think that, in reality, Stormont rule isn’t working for it and actually the fact that the DUP just won’t compromise enough means that Sinn Féin’s involvement in the Executive, which is very unpopular, or whether Sinn Féin – the Executive offers massive powers of patronage, it offers salaries for Sinn Féin MLAs, it’s money going into the party’s coffers – whether it’s actually prepared to jeopardise that for political and ideological goals? Those are the key questions.
Martin: Alright, Suzanne, we want to thank you. We’re then going to try and get the Nationalist perspective in a moment from Ed Moloney. Thank you for a tremendous amount of information and condensing it in a very short period of time.
Suzanne: Okay. Thanks. (ends time stamp ~ 35:02)