Reg Empey: Arlene Foster has gifted Gerry Adams the chance to re-open negotiations

DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams

DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams

As the election approaches, it is clear that neither Arlene Foster or the DUP realise the huge mistakes they have made in the last couple of months.

Firstly, Stormont now has a reputation for gross incompetence, not only over the RHI scheme, but because of a series of botched schemes and ineffective leadership.

The Sinn Fein delegation after talks at Stormont House in Belfast in December 2014. The party will seek fresh negotiations and present fresh demands after the election results in March 2017, says Lord Empey

The Sinn Fein delegation after talks at Stormont House in Belfast in December 2014. The party will seek fresh negotiations and present fresh demands after the election results in March 2017, says Lord Empey

The fact that the Northern Ireland taxpayer has to borrow £700 million to pay off civil servants who could easily have been removed through natural wastage over a period of years seems to have been forgotten about.

Secondly, there is a growing ‘whiff’ about how the Executive conducts its business, with one scandal after another. Added to this are the examples of ‘snouts in the trough’ with advisers paid colossal sums of money and then being accused of totally unacceptable behaviour.

Thirdly, Mrs Foster doesn’t seem to grasp the fact that she has given Gerry Adams an opportunity to open up a whole new set of negotiations, where he has a veto over the re-establishment of Stormont after the election.

All of this was avoidable. Had Arlene Foster and the DUP showed a little graciousness before Christmas, apologised for the failures of the RHI scheme and either stood down for a few weeks or even set up a Ministerial team to work on solutions and reported back in the New Year, this costly election would have been avoided. Indeed, by today Mrs Foster would have been back as First Minister and there would be no election.

Lord Empey at the  Ulster Unionist Party annual conference in Belfast in 2015. Picture credit � Matt Mackey - Presseye.com

Lord Empey at the Ulster Unionist Party annual conference in Belfast in 2015. Picture credit � Matt Mackey - Presseye.com

What has happened is a total failure by the DUP to govern properly. Gross incompetence combined with arrogance is leading to an opening up of all the constitutional issues which were settled by the Belfast Agreement.

Today we see that Sinn Fein, who have seized the opportunity given to them by the DUP, are now trying to uncouple Northern Ireland from the Union by arguing for ‘special status’ for us within the EU, something that could only come about by weakening our links with London.

Arlene has also succeeded in bringing to a premature end the political careers of some of her closest colleagues as the reduction in the number of MLAs takes effect, to say nothing about those of her party who will lose their seats through a change in the preference of voters.

Sinn Fein have put the Maze prison site on their shopping list; the DUP had agreed to a proposal for a centre at that site which many unionists saw as a ‘shrine’ to hunger strikers. After public protests, the then DUP leader Peter Robinson reneged on the deal in his famous letter from Florida in the summer of 2013.

The last few minutes of the talks with Northern Ireland parties at Stormont House, Belfast in December 2014  hosted by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers
. Picture by Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye

The last few minutes of the talks with Northern Ireland parties at Stormont House, Belfast in December 2014 hosted by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers . Picture by Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye

What does Mrs Foster do if Gerry Adams puts the same proposal on the table that was previously agreed to?

This is but one of the scenarios that will play out in coming weeks.

The bottom line is that the DUP has played their hand very badly and placed unionism in a difficult position. Nine months ago, Arlene Foster won the election and had all the cards in her hand. Today that victory has turned to dust.

Only a change of unionist leadership will prevent a weakened DUP leader from having to pay a huge price to get back into Stormont.

I am convinced that Mike Nesbitt and his colleagues should be given the opportunity to lead an Executive that will openly and honestly provide good government for the people.

As the DUP has learned nothing they would simply make the same mistakes again, despite having 10 uninterrupted years to rule.

Arlene Foster has had her chance and has blown it. It’s time for new leadership at the helm of unionism and the Ulster Unionist Party can provide it.

• Lord Empey is an Ulster Unionist peer