You know a political story has developed a life of its own when people – most of them just strangers who recognise you as, ‘that political guy from the television and papers’ – stop you in shops, restaurants, petrol stations and even the school gate and ask you, “what’s all this about getting money to keep your heaters on, stuff?”
When the story first broke on Spotlight a DUP MLA told me that this was just the media having another pop at Arlene: “It will blow over in a day or two, Alex. Ordinary people don’t care about these contrived attacks and they’ll be more concerned with the Christmas shopping than Nolan doing another one of his rants.” Hmm.
The story has everything. Incompetence. Buck-passing. Alleged cover-up. The whiff of fraud. Financial waste. Former political allies falling out. Scores being settled. The possible abuse of power. Legal action. Personal attacks. Whistleblowers. Confessional TV. Tears. Wagon-circling. Votes of confidence. Collapse of public trust. Public inquiries. Attempts at character assassination. Potential collapse of the non-aggression pact between the DUP and Sinn Fein. Huge embarrassment for Arlene Foster and the DUP. Recall of the Assembly. And all of it played out in the run-up to Christmas; like some awful pantomime from hell in which nothing is funny and all of the main characters are struggling to make their lines sound convincing. All that’s missing is the sight of Buttons and the Ugly Sisters throwing bundles of cash into an oven to keep the gingerbread children warm.
When Arlene Foster replaced Peter Robinson as leader and first minister the hope was that it would deflect public attention from the constant drip-drip-drip of the Nama saga. No one in the DUP would ever admit it in public, yet there was a real fear that the party could be damaged in the 2016 Assembly election if Robinson stayed on. So along came Arlene, with her reputation as a good minister and a safe pair of hands; and, more important, as someone who would be an attractive option for the sort of UUP voter who would never switch to the DUP with Paisley or Robinson at the helm.
And she delivered for the DUP. She saw off the challenges from the UUP, TUV, PUP and Ukip. She saw off the Alliance challenge (they were hoping for a third seat) in East Belfast. She retained the party’s 38 seats and came within a few hundred votes of making it 40. She cut a non-aggression pact with Sinn Fein and brought Claire Sugden in as justice minister. With a majority of the total unionist vote under her belt and the UUP reduced to their worst ever Assembly result, she was mistress of all she surveyed.
Yet, six months later, she faces a vote of no confidence, Sinn Fein wants her to stand aside as first minister, Jonathan Bell has accused her and her advisors of undermining him, and every day brings another batch of awful headlines.
On top of the RHI story, she’s also having to deal with the ongoing and damaging – albeit on a lesser scale – saga of Dee Stitt, Charter NI and alleged links between the organisation and the UDA. Add on the broader financial crises facing health and infrastructure and the potential impact – political, economic and constitutional – of Brexit and you begin to appreciate the nightmare cocktail confronting her.
The RHI story boils down to this: two ministers, a group of special advisors, and a department packed with policy planners, experts, implementers, economists and assorted legal and media professionals failed to bring an outlandishly out-of-control scheme to heel.
Worse, between them they managed to saddle us with the need to either find £400m over the next 20 years, or else discover a loophole to free them from contracts which were signed – supposedly in good faith – by both sides. And when asked to explain what went wrong they went into full-blown Yes Minister mode and threw enough dust, mud, caveats, shrugs-of-the-shoulders and eye-rolling to distract us for years: or so they hoped.
Back to Mrs Foster. She had a moment to prove to us that she really was a safe pair of hands when she gave an interview to the BBC’s Mark Devenport last week. She didn’t do that. Her performance raised additional questions – which remain unanswered – and resulted in her press office having to issue a statement a few days later that one of her answers was based on ‘her impression’ that something was true. Subsequent interventions from Nigel Dodds and Gregory Campbell only muddied the waters even more.
Then on Thursday, responding in the aftermath of Jonathan Bell’s genuinely extraordinary interview with Stephen Nolan, she decided to play the man rather than the ball.
In other words, she and her press office handled this in the worst possible way imaginable. When I wrote in last Monday’s column that an Assembly recall was necessary, it was dismissed by DUP sources. Three days later that recall had been forced on her. What had started as a story about incompetence has now blown into an altogether different story about power struggles, personality clashes, poor government, psychological drama and political farce: and all for the want of straightforward answers to straightforward questions.
I presume an independent investigation will be agreed to today (enough for Sinn Fein) and Mrs Foster will probably survive as DUP leader and first minister. The same cannot be said about her reputation as a safe pair of hands.
What we need to see from her today is some sign of humility, evidence that she is off her high horse; and a grasp of the fact that her reputation is under very serious attack.