Almost two years after the RHI scandal erupted and became the catalyst for the collapse of Stormont, Arlene Foster has issued a public apology on behalf of the party.
In a major shift from the tone and content of her past comments on the cash for ash mess, the DUP leader used her main speech at the DUP conference on Saturday to address head-on what would otherwise have been the elephant in the room.
However, although Mrs Foster’s apology was detailed it was also carefully worded and involved her corporately apologising on behalf of the DUP as a party rather than accepting that she had done anything wrong for which she should apologise.
At the RHI Inquiry in April Mrs Foster was asked if she had done anything about the RHI scandal “for which you feel that you bear any measure of personal responsibility”.
The DUP leader gave a lengthy answer which said that based on what she knew at the time she did not feel she was personally responsible for any errors.
She was then asked: “Are there any particular things, then, that you feel that you didn’t do that you could’ve done or should’ve done?”
Mrs Foster replied: “None that spring to mind at present.”
But on Saturday Mrs Foster struck a radically different tone. Early in her speech – which was the final act of the conference – Mrs Foster said: “Today at the outset I want to publicly address the issue of the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme and our handling of it during our time in government.
“This has been a very difficult period for our party in particular and for Northern Ireland politics as a whole.
“My motivation in government was always to do the right thing at the right time and for the right reasons.
“But the best of intentions doesn’t make you immune from mistakes or misjudgments. Some of our past decisions and actions have left a lot to be desired, and I know that they have personally hurt and offended many of our members, voters and the public.”
Choosing not to skirt over the issue but to address it in detail, the former first minister continued: “The public inquiry has been difficult for many individually and painful for the party collectively...but I make no excuses.
“Today as leader of the party I apologise. As a party we are deeply, deeply sorry for the mistakes we made, and for the things we got wrong during that period.”
Alluding to her determination to remain as DUP leader, something which she has said privately to colleagues, Mrs Foster said she was “determined our party will learn the lessons from RHI and how government business was conducted at Stormont more generally” and conceded that there are “many lessons to learn”.
She said that one lesson was that they need to choose “the best people” as ministers and to examine how special advisers are appointed, how they operate and how they are regulated.
Mrs Foster raised a radical idea which has not yet been publicly proposed as a response to the RHI Inquiry’s devastating revelations of civil service incompetence and structural inadequacies.
Mrs Foster said there was a need for “a fundamental appraisal of the Northern Ireland Civil Service and consideration of extending the Home Civil Service to Northern Ireland”, something which would end the independence from Whitehall which Stormont mandarins have enjoyed since partition in 1921.
Mrs Foster, whose party in government was notorious for blocking Freedom of Information requests, also said that “proper records must be kept and we must recognise that greater transparency will add value to public debate”.
The DUP leader – whose future will be shaped next year by Sir Patrick Coghlin’s report at the conclusion of the public inquiry – vowed that “we will work hard to make amends and regain the support and trust of those who were upset by what they saw unfolding over the last number of months”.
She added: “I know I speak for many when I say that over the course of the last twelve months there have been a number of other areas where behaviour in our ranks has not matched the standards expected of people holding public office.
“We must ensure there is no repeat of such behaviour and that those high standards we aspire to ourselves and that others rightly require of us are applicable at every level within this party.”