As Arlene Foster announced her resignation, the floodgates opened and tributes poured in from across the political arena, including many nods to her successes as a woman. Notable among them was Arlene Foster’s own comments about her career and how she’d broken a glass ceiling for women by taking up the leadership of the DUP and the position of First Minister.
This very early effort at rehabilitation seemed to tap into sentiments that Foster was somehow a moderate against a swathe of right-wingers in the party, who she’d attempted to drive centrewards. Robert Peston’s now hilariously ratioed tweet was probably the worst extreme of this, but commentators locally drew similar conclusions, if a little less hamfistedly.
A glass ceiling broken?
If Arlene Foster made attempts to push the party to the centre, she made no reference to it publicly, failed dramatically, and upheld right wing, religious party positions at every test.
And if she smashed a glass ceiling, she quickly repaired it behind her. The lives of working class women are always forgotten in talk of glass ceilings, but as a DUP leader and MLA, Foster enacted some of the harshest austerity, including welfare reforms, which have harmed working class women disproportionately.
The sentiments in her final speech, which were lauded as sensible, befitting a leader, and conciliatory, were a step apart from her infamous ‘crocodile’ reference and they misrepresented a political tenure which saw women’s rights blocked repeatedly, Irish language activists mocked, and sectarian divisions actively stoked.
The campaign to have more women hold positions of power isn’t a wholly futile endeavour, of course. Representation of women, particularly those of minority background, gives a platform to their experiences and normalises their role in a system laden with misogyny. And it is undoubtedly more difficult for women to hold elected office in such a system – I say this with experience.
But as Emma Hendrick highlighted on International Women’s Day, the mainstream call for more women is vague and rarely refers specifically to “more working-class women, women of colour, Traveller women, trans women, or disabled women”.
The tenure of Arlene Foster, and Theresa May and Margaret Thatcher before her, has proven it is a myth that simply electing any woman will improve the lot for all women. The DUP is a Trump-sympathising, homophobic outfit and the Tories have systematically decimated working class communities every time they’ve held office. Any woman espousing the politics of either party is hardly likely to fight for women on the fringes of society; and in practice, their politics have punished those women time and again.
Again, Emma hits the nail on the head: “history has shown us that it is not a politician’s gender that determines whether they fight for women, but their class perspective and the nature of their political agenda. Right-wing women have always put the boot into women with as much ease as their male counterparts…”
With Foster at the helm, the DUP haven’t budged an inch on equality issues. They may have fallen silent on equal marriage, but their position remains the same. A year on from decriminalisation, with the CEDAW recommendations enshrined, the DUP have brought a Bill to the Stormont Assembly to roll back on rights that have been hard fought for, for decades.
It is worth mentioning here that while measurably better than the DUP in their rhetoric on this issue, and with their young female MLAs leading off on the debate, Sinn Féin could not challenge this Bill because it is in line with their party policy. Also headed by women North and South, Sinn Féin had to be dragged to a position on Repeal by a mass movement of women across Ireland, and it still falls short of a pro-choice policy meeting medical best practice.
From suffrage to Repeal, it has ever been the case throughout history that movements have delivered progress for women, not politicians who drag their feet. Among voters in traditionally unionist areas, who the DUP would have us believe are ultra-conservative, progressive attitudes far outstrip the manifestos of all unionist parties, and more and more young people from these communities join protests for climate change, abortion rights, and trans equality.
Crisis of unionism
What is utterly lacking is any kind of step change among the ‘leaderships’ of loyalism or unionism. Foster’s DUP finds itself on the sharpest end of the ongoing crisis of Unionism, on the one hand pandering to hard loyalist elements seeking a return to the violence of the past, while juggling a relationship with nationalist Sinn Féin as their partners in government.
And in that terrain, where concessions on equal marriage or conversion therapy will be opportunistically pounced upon by the likes of the TUV, there is no room for further hemorrhaging of votes. This is what Foster’s real agenda was – protecting an increasingly disgruntled voter base from those to her right and the centre, while attempting to maintain unity with the harder right-wing, Christian elements of the Party.
RHI was a symptom of this crisis, in a state where blatant patronage is no longer possible and dodgy Stormont schemes can benefit those in the know. Foster was at the helm of that scandal, as £550 million went up in smoke.
It was Arlene Foster’s DUP who pushed hardest for re-opening the economy during the pandemic and vetoed COVID restrictions, leading to desperately tragic and unnecessary deaths. They appeased business interests and created a false dichotomy between the economy and COVID regulations, suggesting that we must re-open or suffer economic peril. A zero-COVID strategy which could slow the economy, open the purse strings for workers affected, and prevent the spread of the virus, was shunned as the advice of “quacks” by Foster herself, when questioned by People Before Profit’s Gerry Carroll.
And in recent months, off the back of pressure from the likes of Jim Allister and Jamie Bryson, it was Arlene Foster’s DUP who stoked sectarian tensions. Edwin Poots, likely to be Foster’s replacement, claimed that nationalists were responsible for the majority spread of COVID-19; and during the worst trouble in Belfast since the flag protests, it was Arlene Foster who appeared to give cover to rioters, claiming that the real ‘law-breakers’ weren’t those with petrol bombs on the streets but the Sinn Féin members who broke COVID regulations by attending Bobby Storey’s funeral.
Comparatively, Arlene Foster has done nothing about the blatant regulations breaches by her own party colleagues. She has brought no challenge to the door of the PSNI for their discriminatory treatment of Black Lives Matter protesters who were disproportionately targeted with the same COVID regulations.
Just two months ago, Arlene Foster led a delegation of senior DUP figures to meet the Loyalist Community Council – an organisation made up of members of paramilitary organisations including UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commando. Foster defended the meeting, saying that “ignoring communities will take Northern Ireland in the wrong direction” without the slightest hint of irony given her party’s brazen ignorance of the needs of the LGBTQ+ community.
This is the same rank hypocrisy which sees the DUP display apoplectic rage about any ‘divergence’ between the UK and the North in Brexit terms, while arguing for an entirely different set of reproductive rights west and east of that border, and fighting for devolution of corporation tax powers so they can set a different rate, handing corporations a fat tax break.
The same rank hypocrisy saw the DUP in recent weeks plead the case of working class protestants who’ve experienced deprivation, while implementing Tory welfare reforms, sneering at public sector calls for better pay, and, in Arlene Foster’s case, refusing to meet the leadership of the trade unions for over four years.
If Edwin Poots is elected to the leadership, the rhetoric around all of these issues will undoubtedly be worsened. The opposition to reproductive/LGBTQ+ rights, BAME equality, Gaeilgeoirí will be more steadfast and blatant, and the likes of Michelle O’Neill might hark back to a working relationship with his predecessor. But we have nothing to gain from the rehabilitation of Arlene Foster.
Indeed, it does a disservice to those who have been punished by the DUP during Foster’s tenure. And women across the North will have nothing to gain from a future leader in her image. Now is the time to build a different kind of society which fights for equality and proper democracy, and resigns the politics of Arlene Foster and Edwin Poots to the dustbin of history.
The unionism of the DUP and the nationalism of Sinn Féin have failed women and the working class across the divide. As the potential for a border poll increases, we must actively promote the vision of a different kind of Ireland which protects, rather than punishes women, refuses to be repressed by right-wingers in Belfast or Dublin, and makes a fundamental break with the kind of sectarianism which thrives on division and deprivation.
As Séan Mitchell wrote recently for Spectre: “In the face of loyalism’s drift into the violence of the past, and of a refurbished Irish nationalism that can see no future beyond the confines of a tax haven Ireland, the radical left must strike out boldly on a new course: winning working people on both sides of the interface, and on both sides of the border left by partition, to a vision of a socialist Ireland…”