Arlene Foster made her swansong as Northern Ireland’s first minister much as she began it five years ago – with smiles, good wishes and upbeat sentiments.
She bowed out on Friday on a big stage – a British-Irish Council summit – in the Lough Erne resort in her native county, Fermanagh.
“Don’t make me feel like Norman-no-mates,” Foster said as she waited for the other political leaders to join her in a photocall.
It was a joke. But the picturesque pomp and an actual song – Foster channelled Frank Sinatra’s That’s Life at a press conference – could not mask the bitter legacy of Foster’s tenure as leader of Northern Ireland and the Democratic Unionist party, nor soften the ruthless manner of her ousting.
“There isn’t much of a legacy,” said Jon Tonge, a University of Liverpool politics professor and authority on the DUP. Besides extracting £1bn in extra funding for Northern Ireland from Theresa May’s government Foster had little to show, he said. “Beyond that it was a whole series of reversals or calamities.”
The British and Irish politicians who attended the 35th meeting of the British-Irish Council – a body set up under the Good Friday agreement to strengthen east-west relations – tried to draw a line under her turbulent leadership with warm words.
Ireland’s taoiseach, Micheál Martin, thanked Foster for her contribution to public life and said it took “politicians of courage to build bridges and develop effective shared government”.
Michael Gove, the UK’s Cabinet Officer, deputising for Boris Johnson who was hosting the G7 summit in Cornwall, also paid tribute.
“I love Arlene. I think she’s fantastic. I think she’s a wonderful person. She’s an open-hearted, public-spirited, problem-solving, go-getting leader and she has been a great voice for Northern Ireland as first minister.”
Gove said Foster’s contribution to public life had not ended, fuelling speculation she may end up with a government post or in the House of Lords.
Bonhomie extended to the press conference where the deputy first minister, Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Féin, laughed as Foster sang fragments of That’s Life.
It was a far cry from Foster’s at times toxic relationship with Sinn Féin, a partner in the power-sharing government at Stormont. In 2017, a year after Foster took office, Sinn Féin quit Stormont amid the cash-for-ash scandal, collapsing the assembly and executive for three years.
The summit, which included the Scottish and Welsh first ministers, Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford, participating via Zoom, focused on the Covid-19 pandemic and economic recovery.
It also touched on NHS waiting lists and the Northern Ireland protocol, the part of the Brexit deal that requires checks on some goods entering the region from Great Britain, and that fuelled a party revolt against Foster in April. She branded it “brutal”.
Since winning a leadership contest last month, Edwin Poots, a DUP rival, has purged Foster’s allies from party posts and the ministerial team at Stormont, prompting resignations and recriminations likened to a soap opera. Instead of taking the first minister post, Poots has appointed a party colleague, Paul Givan.
Once Foster steps down as first minister – expected this weekend – O’Neill must also step down as deputy first minister, starting a seven-day countdown to fill both posts. There is speculation Sinn Féin will demand a long-delayed Irish-language act – anathema to many unionists – as the price of rebooting Stormont.
Tonge said Foster was not the chief architect of the DUP’s miscalculations over Brexit, which has left the party blamed for the Irish Sea border, but she blundered in inviting Boris Johnson to the DUP conference in 2018, when he promised to never introduce a sea border. “That was the nadir for Foster – there was no need to put faith in Boris Johnson.”
Electorally the party prospered under Foster yet Northern Ireland ended up with same-sex marriage, abortion services and a sea border, anathema to most DUP supporters.
Recent polls show plunging support for the DUP, raising expectations that Sinn Féin will emerge as the biggest party – and with the first minister post – in assembly elections slated for next year.