Sunday 8 December 2019

Wrong politician has quit - but the day of reckoning for Arlene Foster is now closer

‘Belligerent even now, Mrs Foster is claiming Mr McGuinness’s position is political rather than principled, although the cash-for ash story is the biggest public finance scandal in Stormont’s history Picture: PA
‘Belligerent even now, Mrs Foster is claiming Mr McGuinness’s position is political rather than principled, although the cash-for ash story is the biggest public finance scandal in Stormont’s history Picture: PA
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

The wrong politician resigned yesterday: Arlene Foster should have stepped down rather than Martin McGuinness. But the day of reckoning for Stormont's obstinate First Minister has just edged considerably closer.

I wonder if Arlene Foster is feeling lucky? Her fortunes look set to be tested at the ballot box shortly - Mr McGuinness's departure makes her position untenable as First Minister. She has little choice but to return to the electorate on a 'back me or sack me' platform.

The First Minister is facing now into a general election sooner rather than later, and the only guarantee is that it will be a bitter battle. With her at the head, the DUP is hobbled and in a weakened position. What an inept leader, what a blinkered party - compromise would have avoided this situation but conciliation is not in Mrs Foster's nature. Which is something of a disadvantage in coalition government.

She is old school, 'no surrender' DUP. Those bygone era attitudes are of no use any longer in the North - it cannot prosper until the bigots, and those who fail to grasp the need for inclusivity, leave the stage.

The DUP has failed to reassure the public that this scandal isn't rooted in corruption as opposed to incompetence. People are alarmed - and rightly so. No political party with the self-preservation instinct should go to the polls with an uneasy electorate, but that's the position the party finds itself in.

In effect, Sinn Féin has neutered Mrs Foster and made her first ministry untenable unless voters choose to endorse her again in a new election. That's a big if. She has squandered her power, and for what - to save face? To show she won't be pushed around? Minor gains for a great deal of pain there.

The DUP's ineptitude has caused this situation. Sinn Féin didn't want to precipitate an election but it couldn't afford to look away: otherwise, it was tantamount to the party endorsing mismanagement of half a billion pounds. The party's bungling could benefit the UUP at the polls, or clear the way for Sinn Féin to be the biggest government party.

Yet Mrs Foster continues to try to brazen things out. Little wonder the Deputy First Minister has lost patience with her won't-be-budged stance - Martin McGuinness's irritation echoes the public's. Good governance is not an optional extra.

She needed to moderate her stance but consistently has refused to do so. Tellingly, Mr McGuinness used the word "arrogance" repeatedly yesterday in relation to Mrs Foster and her party. Clearly, the partnership is broken.

Under the circumstances, he did a good day's work by setting in train a process likely to trigger a general election, because someone needs to protect the integrity of Northern Ireland's political institutions.

However, it appears that Mr McGuinness is seriously ill. That unfortunate reality was clear during his press conference yesterday, and it is questionable whether he will lead his party into the next election.

This presents Sinn Féin with a significant problem and may explain its reluctance for some weeks to pull the plug on the coalition. He is a towering figure and cannot readily be replaced.

Yet despite his frailty, he looked steely when warning the DUP there would be no automatic return to the status quo. Respect is a two-way street, he signalled to the party.

This is a man who deserves the utmost respect, at a time of crisis, for appearing in front of the cameras and demonstrating leadership during a time of turmoil - despite the toll it took on him.

Mr McGuinness, Deputy First Minister for almost 10 years, has kept a steady hand on the peace process tiller. You can but hope he will be able to absent himself from the political stage - despite the undeniable gap left - and concentrate on his health and his family.

The DUP might be advised to heed his comments about the need for equality, respect and reconciliation - that's if it wants to hold office in Stormont in the next administration. Loyalty to Mrs Foster may not be in the party's best interests.

She is the third consecutive First Minister with whom Mr McGuinness has worked, succeeding Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson - and the most short-term. Brief government terms are not in the North's best interests, especially during Brexit discussions and North-South border concerns, all of which will impact on citizens' lives for generations.

Belligerent even now, Mrs Foster is claiming Mr McGuinness's position is political rather than principled, although the cash-for-ash story is the biggest public finance scandal in Stormont's history. And she is indivisibly connected with it, as the minister responsible during the setting up and running of most of the green energy scheme's life span.

Some conciliation towards her political partners wouldn't go amiss. Instead, her eye is on the unionist electorate as she indulges in hard-line rhetoric.

However, the shapes thrown by DUP must surely be causing serious annoyance in Westminster, where the Tories are preoccupied with Brexit negotiations.

The long-term future of the union with Britain is weakening. Not only is Westminster refusing to pay the cheque for the renewable heat incentive scheme, but other bills might receive closer scrutiny now, too. With Catholic under-16s in a majority now in the North, the future isn't Orange, no matter what the DUP tells its voters. It needs to start reaching out - but is the party capable of it?

Finally, people north of the border deserve a higher standard of leadership from their politicians than the self-interest exhibited during the current crisis. Let's hope the message about standards in public life emerges loud and clear at the ballot box.

All of the main opposition parties, in addition to Sinn Féin, want Mrs Foster excluded from office while an inquiry is set up. That tells its own story. As for the lady in question, the closest she approaches to an admission of failure is in saying the "biggest regret" of her political career is no cap placed on huge payments under the green energy scheme.

I think she has room for another regret: mistaking mulishness for strength, to the point of allowing the house of cards to be tumbled. It's over to the voting public now. Sometime in the next couple of months or so, they will have their say on Arlene Foster and her 'Nanny Knows Best' politics.

Irish Independent

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