Sunday 8 December 2019

Playing misogyny card has left Foster as a busted flush

Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster, right, with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA
Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster, right, with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Nothing gives women a bad name like the cynical use of the woman-as-victim card. Arlene Foster has thrown down her misogyny claims as though conjuring an ace - in reality they turn her into a busted flush.

What poor judgment she is showing at every turn in the current Stormont crisis, exposing herself as a third-rate minister - not least because she has been hardboiled throughout, without the slightest breath of humility. You can but wonder who's advising her in the DUP, and whether their intentions are Machiavellian: positioned for a power grab if she topples.

Consider, too, the possibility that she might be acting on instinct, in which case her capacity to steer the North towards a secure, prosperous and peaceful future must be questioned.

A number of descriptions can be attached to the North's ambitious, outspoken and determined First Minister, but victim is not among them. Yet she insists on advancing the improbable claim that calls for her to step aside temporarily are motivated by prejudice against women.

She holds the top job in Northern Ireland, so it's hard to see where her grounds for complaint rest. Either she is a strong individual who scaled the greasy pole to become DUP leader and First Minister, or she is a victim. She can't have it both ways. No victim could reach such a position - there still hasn't been a female taoiseach.

Mrs Foster, née Kelly, has adopted an unconvincing stance, and the public is throwing a jaundiced eye over it. Confidence in the administration continues to plummet.

Accountability in politics is non-negotiable. It has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with public trust. Women in high office should and must be held answerable for their decisions with the same rigour as men. It's called standards in public office.

Mrs Foster may well win the battle by manipulating the gender card, but she has lost the war - her integrity is compromised and her credibility in shreds. Who can take her seriously as a strong leader now?

The cash-for-ash case is not about sexism in politics but the misuse of public money. Some people (DUP supporters, it is suggested) were profiteering from the public purse. The handling of the Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme - set to cost hundreds of millions of pounds and impair services in the North - needs to be investigated openly. Either corruption or incompetence lie at its core, or a combination of both. Blaming it on the civil servants won't wash. Mrs Foster was minister of the department responsible for most of the time the scheme was in operation, and is inextricably linked with it.

No wonder the DUP is in a tailspin and trying to deflect blame. So much for the safe pair of hands the party thought held the tiller when it chose Mrs Foster (46) as Peter Robinson's successor.

What's most illuminating about the scandal, however, is the warning shot across the bows from Britain: its refusal to pick up the bill. Previously, there was an expectation that no price tag was too high to guarantee the peace. Now, in the Brexit referendum aftermath, relationships are shifting and loyalties loosening.

Both Brexit and the cash-for-ash business ought to signal to unionism that the British government is losing patience with Northern Ireland's steep bill. However, the DUP is operating on the premise that its votes in Westminster might be swapped for bargaining chips from the Tories. High-stakes poker is under way.

Meanwhile, the DUP's partners in the Executive aren't looking particularly sure-footed, either. Even if Sinn Féin collapses the administration by triggering an election, which it doesn't particularly want to do, this will delay dealing with the crisis and public discontent will mount.

Mrs Foster's testosterone-riddled approach has given Sinn Féin no wriggle room to find a way out of its dilemma. Here, as elsewhere, she continues the cold war. As a leader, she is limited by her lack of vision: she doesn't regard herself as the leader of Northern Ireland but rather of unionism.

She was elected first as a UUP MLA and jumped to the DUP, along with Jeffrey Donaldson. During the leadership contest to replace Mr Robinson, Mrs Foster ran a cleverly-plotted campaign showing she had the potential to broaden the party's appeal with UUP voters. Regarded as well-spoken and presentable, she bucked the odds to become the first woman to head the DUP - not a party known for embracing 21st century values.

But at heart she is a country lawyer who can see no further than the end of her nose, and is only interested in the unionist heartland, rather than a mutually beneficial relationship with the Republic. By comparison, Mr Robinson realised that to secure the union, he needed to reach out to Northern nationalists. Already, Catholic under-16s are in a majority in the North, so unionism is facing into challenging times. Yet Mrs Foster remains locked into a 'no surrender' setting.

Additionally, with Brexit she urged a Leave vote - but the majority voted to stay, including some of her own supporters. The DUP is a pro-Brexit party in an anti-Brexit jurisdiction, in partnership with anti-Brexit Sinn Féin. That creates its own set of tensions.

Perhaps she thinks to emulate her Thatcher archetype with an attitude akin to "the lady's not for turning". But rigidity is not interchangeable with strength. She needs words in her vocabulary other than 'no'. True leadership requires vision, diplomacy, the ability to compromise, and a finger on the public pulse.

A more fitting role model would be Angela Merkel, who has held office as Chancellor of Germany since 2005 and is known as 'the decider' in Europe. Undeniably a powerful woman, her hallmarks are calmness and clarity in the face of adversity.

Stepping back while an independent judge-led investigation is held is hardly a big ask. As a law graduate, Mrs Foster ought to be well-versed in Latin. Here's some Seneca: "Ab honesto virum bonum nihil deterret." Nothing deters a good man (or woman) from doing what honour requires.

I suppose the only positive to be drawn here is that at least it's not a sectarian but a political problem convulsing Stormont. So we are seeing progress of sorts.

Irish Independent

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