The word schadenfreude, of German origin, refers to the feeling of taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune. Or in more basic terms, seeing someone getting their comeuppance.

Such is the brutal nature of politics, it’s an emotion in plentiful supply this week as Arlene Foster’s grip on the leadership of the DUP is tenuous to say the least.

A strong and determined personality, strident and stubborn even, is seen as a strength or weakness depending on your viewpoint, and in Mrs. Foster’s case it would explain her opponents’ satisfaction at her demise.

Defied the odds

It also explains why she has defied the continuous predictions that her leadership days were numbered; at the time I’m writing this, the story has just broken so I don’t know how it will develop.

Those of us outside the political bubble may often wonder why someone like Arlene sticks it. The latest nasty case of completely unfounded tweets about her marriage is the sort of thing which people in the public eye are subjected to.

Being a woman in such a high-profile role seems to bring a whole new level of abuse, especially in these days of social media. I can’t help thinking that, even in this latest episode, there’s some misogyny at work.

But Arlene Foster is made of stern stuff, perhaps nurtured by her personal experience of growing up in adversity in a Border region. What will surely have hurt her, though, was the people within her own party whose support she thought she could rely on are now ready to plunge the knife.

There are two issues which come to mind if Mrs. Foster does go? What will her legacy be, how will history judge the first female First Minister? And where does Unionism go from here?

Her career in politics has seen spectacular highs and lows, and no little controversy along the way. Nobody gets to the position she was in without making friends and enemies.

Her departure from the UUP in Fermanagh is a case in point. As an ambitious young woman in a Fermanagh Ulster Unionist party dominated by older men back in the late 90s, she was already making waves when she won an Assembly seat for the party in 2003, and there was some resentment when she defected to the DUP, disillusioned by the Trimble leadership and his handling of the Good Friday Agreement.

One of her erstwhile colleagues at the time told me he thought her arrogance would eventually be her downfall, a measure of the bad feeling.

Good start

But her rise and rise in the DUP saw her getting a dry run for the top post in 2010 when Peter Robinson stepped down briefly after “Irisgate”, and when he was to step down permanently late in 2015, Mrs Foster was elected leader and began working alongside Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness.

It seemed to start so well; the new broom of a leader not from the Free Presbyterian faction who could move the party away from the fundamentalist wing, she appeared to be an electoral asset and said all the right things about “hope for all the community”. With all the goodwill, we should really have seen Stormont blossoming into an institution which would inspire a shared society, moving forward into a brighter future for everyone.

But the last five years have been turbulent to say the least, and Mrs. Foster’s leadership has been found wanting to the point where speculation for some time constantly suggesting that she is really only remaining in the post because there’s nobody else.

The “crocodile” remark over the Irish Language Act was unfortunate to say the least, but permanent damage was caused by the RHI scandal which saw the closure of the Assembly for three years.

It will be a major defining mark on her tenure. But not the only one, Brexit and the Protocol and how the party was betrayed by Boris Johnson in particular is causing ructions within Unionism with the DUP under Mrs. Foster’s watch struggling under fire from Jim Allister and loyalism.

She also had an uneasy relationship with media, not just by favouring certain journalists but by appearing aloof, even petulant to others; surprising perhaps for many within Fermanagh who found her a people person with an engaging personality in private. She’s well liked by her supporters, but that’s not to say universally liked even on the Unionist side.

There were positive signs for her opponents, attending Fermanagh’s gaelic football Ulster final in Clones and shaking hands with Deputy First Minister, Michelle O’Neill at the funeral of Martin McGuinnes for example. There were times in the pandemic when the two women appeared to be working well together.

But overall, the relationship between the two parties simply wasn’t working the way it should, and in the early period after becoming First Minister, Arlene Foster talked about bringing hope and a sense of harmony.

Missed opportunity

At this point it all looks like a missed opportunity to lead Unionism forward, but it remains to be seen how history judges Arlene Foster. Regardless of what happens in the coming days, I certainly don’t think we’ve seen the end of her involvement in politics.

The wider question, though, is where does Unionism go from here?

I personally feel that political Unionism is in a form of denial about the change going on in society and the disconnect between the leadership and civic Unionism has led to polls showing a drift away from the DUP. Some of their support is going to the TUV, some to Alliance and the danger of many Unionists staying at home.

You would expect that in the circumstances of DUP difficulty, the Ulster Unionists would benefit but it’s significant that they are in such a poor place that no commentator is predicting that.

So the departure of Arlene Foster as leader, if it comes, will signal a battle for the soul of the DUP.

It’s interesting that the trigger for this week’s “no confidence” letter was her decision to abstain from the gay conversion vote.

It was clearly not the reason in itself, but it’s a manifestation of the split in the two wings, fundamentalists and modernisers, albeit not as liberal as many would like.

Whoever gains control now, we’ll either see the party moving backwards towards the hardliners or forward towards sending a message to a Unionist community which needs a progressive party to represent them in an era of change. It’s a sliding doors moment.

So despite the schadenfreude, even glee at the feeling that Unionists are imploding, it’s also a moment in history where those in charge of the leadership of a large section of the community needs to go forward and not back.