From top” Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster; Derek Mooney
The North is heading for another Assembly election barely eight months since the last one.
But this is not some Sinn Féin campaign to get rid of Arlene Foster and the DUP knows it.
Derek Mooney writes:
What makes this ‘Cash for Ash’ scandal different is that, unlike Northern Ireland’s political crises of the past, is not about flags, marches, emblems or legacy – it is purely political. Or, at least, it started out that way.
Cash for Ash is about ministerial competence and responsibility and how they allowed a projected £500 million overspend over the next twenty years on subsidising the use of renewable pellets in heating systems.
But that is not how the DUP First Minister wants to play it. She, and her supporters, have dialled the political rhetoric back to the 1980s, talking the crisis up as not just orange versus green, but as deepest orange versus light orange and all of green.
According to Arlene this is all about her, not the public purse.
Though they cursorily acknowledge the deep public disquiet at the waste of public funds, the DUP asserts that the row has been motivated by the First Minister’s political enemies and opponents.
Arlene Foster herself has even claimed that “A lot of it is personal, a lot of it sadly is misogynistic as well because I am a female – the first female leader of Northern Ireland.”
At some points, she talks as if the crisis was just some part of a big Provo plot to undermine her.
That particular assertion suggests that – despite outward appearances – the DUP has not moved on one iota from its pre-Good Friday Agreement days. It is also as complete a fiction as the notion that the saga is based on misogyny.
It wasn’t Sinn Féin who brought the Cash for Ash scandal to public prominence, it was the BBC’s Stephen Nolan, through both his TV and Radio shows.
It was Nolan’s BBC Radio Ulster morning show that highlighted the scandal with day by day drip feeds of newly leaked material. It was Nolan who featured Arlene’s former DUP ministerial colleague, Jonathan Bell, in a TV interview where Bell pointed the finger at Foster and her Special Advisers for extending the scheme.
Similarly, it has been the traditionally Unionist Belfast newspaper, the Belfast News Letter which has kept the story on its front page since mid-December, courtesy of the tenacity of its Political Editor, Sam McBride.
In the Assembly, it was the SDLP, supported by the UUP, Alliance and Green parties, that tabled the motion calling on the First Minister to be excluded from office for six months. When it came to the vote, Sinn Féin merely abstained.
This is not some Sinn Féin campaign to get rid of Arlene and the DUP knows it. This is a scandal that has its roots in ministerial misfeasance, whether there are elements of malfeasance has yet to be established.
Right up to last Friday, even after the DUP provocatively cut funding for an Irish language scheme, Sinn Féin was still struggling to find a way to get Arlene off the hook.
This, at least, was acknowledged by the First Minister when she said “with the exception of the issue of stepping aside, we believe that the proposals provided to us by Sinn Féin… provide a basis for taking an investigation forward.”
Gerry Adam’s speech over the weekend where he catalogued the times that the DUP had out-foxed Sinn Féin in government signalled a hardening of their position.
The tipping point now is whether the First Minister is prepared to stand aside for a four-week period while the mooted whirlwind investigation is conducted. The DUP say she will not stand aside for even a day. Sinn Féin thinks she must, as indeed did the Assembly by a vote of 39 – 36.
So, who will blink?
If no one does, then an election is inevitable. The Deputy First Minister (who is actually the Co-First Minister) Martin McGuinness can trigger her resignation by resigning himself. This would effectively collapse the Executive and lead to an election.
Will it happen? We should know in the coming days. But even if it doesn’t and one side gives way, relations and trust between the two Executive partners are now so strained and damaged that it hard to see how it can hope to continue for much longer.
It is also hard to see how an election alone can resolve the impasse. Public confidence in NI’s political parties has been falling from election to election. Voters are so turned off by NI politics that fewer people voted in last year’s Assembly election (55%) than voted in the Brexit referendum (63%).
Given the choices currently on offer, is there any reason to hope that voters will not be turned off even further by the petty partisan politics of the past few weeks?
If voters continue to stay away and both the DUP and Sinn Féin return as the main parties of Unionism and Nationalism, albeit with reduced numbers, can a viable Executive be formed with the same two parties at its helm?
Last June’s Brexit vote potentially changed the political landscape in the North, with a majority voting to stay in the EU – it is time that the North’s party political landscape caught up with that change.
Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. His column appears here every Monday. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney