Foster hints at DUP tactical change to take education ministry

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt, Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, DUP leader Arlene Foster, Alliance Party leader David Ford and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, pictured with UTV presenter Marc Mallett
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt, Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, DUP leader Arlene Foster, Alliance Party leader David Ford and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, pictured with UTV presenter Marc Mallett

Arlene Foster has opened the door to the DUP reversing its long-standing Stormont strategy of always choosing the finance ministry – and instead taking the education portfolio as its first departmental pick after next month’s election.

Last week a DUP source told the News Letter that the party was coming under a surprising level of pressure on the doorsteps about the situation in education.

Under Peter Robinson – who, like Mrs Foster, was himself Finance Minister before becoming First Minister – the DUP resolutely said that its first departmental pick would always be the finance department because it controls all other departments’ budgets.

But, in what appeared to be a considered and deliberate statement during last night’s UTV leaders debate, the DUP leader said: “I haven’t said that this time round because I’m listening very carefully to people this time.”

However, she did not make any firm commitment to taking the education portfolio.

The little heat that there was last night came between Martin McGuinness and Colum Eastwood who are standing against each other in Foyle. Both men sparred over education, and the Fresh Start Agreement, with Mr Eastwood accusing the former Education Minister’s party of having failed to end the 11 plus exam.

Mr McGuinness also used the debate to say emphatically – and in so doing implicitly dismissed those on the left of Sinn Fein who have argued against cutting tax for big businesses – “I’m as resolute on the issue of [cutting] corporation tax as Arlene”.

When asked about the recent prosecution of a woman who ordered abortion pills online and administered them to herself at home, Mr Eastwood said that although his party was “pro life” he was “not so sure” that it was in the public interest for the case to be taken against the woman.

Mr McGuinness said that his party was “not pro-choice” but said that he nevertheless wanted to see some relaxation of the abortion laws.

Alliance leader David Ford and Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt stressed that their parties leave it to their members to vote in line with their consciences but Mr Nesbitt said that he personally supports changing the law in cases such as where the unborn child is judged by doctors to have no chance of survival outside of the womb.

Mrs Foster – who briefly stumbled over her words as she delivered an opening statement at the start of the programme before recovering well – refused to be drawn on the case, saying that because of the separation of powers she would not comment on the decision to prosecute.

A second televised leaders debate on the BBC will take place on May 3, just two days before the election.

Analysis: Little heat or light generated

Through little fault of either the political leaders or presenter Marc Mallett, there was little heat or light in the UTV debate.

The broadcaster’s decision to regularly leave what limited debate was developing in order to bring viewers adverts for toothpaste and cars destroyed any hope of serious dialogue.

It is extraordinary that when ITV can routinely go without an ad break for 45 minutes during football matches that it is not possible to have one hour of uninterrupted Assembly election debate once every five years.

Between the adverts, two things were striking: the acrimony between Martin McGuinness and Colum Eastwood, and the lack of acrimony between Mr McGuinness and Arlene Foster.

The latter situation suits Mrs Foster’s pledge to pursue positive politics, but somewhat blunts the DUP message that Mr McGuinness must be kept out at all costs.