On November 21, 2016, Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness signed off on a joint article: ‘We made promises to voters that we will keep – taking on the heavy responsibilities that come with elected office, governing in their best interests, tackling head-on the tough decisions. Others decided to duck the challenges and retreat to the Opposition benches. That is a matter for them. We are getting on with the work. It’s not always easy or straightforward. This is what delivery looks like. No gimmicks. No grandstanding. Just Ministers getting on with the work.’
It sounded very positive. It was meant to. It was a direct riposte to those who had dared to suggest that the working relationship between the DUP and Sinn Fein was ‘built on the pretence that all was well between them’.
Yet, just 49 days later – January 9, 2017 – the pretence of the good relationship and the pretence behind the joint article was blown apart by Martin McGuinness’s resignation letter:
‘At times I have stretched and challenged republicans and nationalists in my determination to reach out to our unionist neighbours. It is a source of deep personal frustration that those efforts have not always been reciprocated by unionist leaders. At times, they have been met with outright rejection. The equality, mutual respect and all-Ireland approaches enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement have never been fully embraced by the DUP.
‘Apart from the negative attitude to nationalism and to the Irish identity and culture, there has been a shameful disrespect towards many other sections of our community. Women, the LGBT community and ethnic minorities have all felt this prejudice. And for those who wish to live their lives through the medium of Irish, elements in the DUP have exhibited the most crude and crass bigotry ... I am tendering my resignation ... In the available period Sinn Fein will not nominate to the position of deputy first minister. We now need an election to allow the people to make their own judgment on these issues democratically at the ballot box.’
Irrespective of what has emerged during the inquiry and irrespective of the findings and recommendations of the final report, one fact is certain: RHI brought down the government of Northern Ireland.
Within a couple of weeks of the story breaking it became clear that Sinn Fein was angling for an election: that’s why McGuinness’s letter led with republicans ‘stretching’ themselves for peace, and accused the DUP of pursuing a ‘negative attitude to nationalism.’ He chose, as one of his last political acts, to press the nuclear button: an extraordinary thing to do for someone who had put so much personal investment into the entire process.
It’s worth bearing in mind, too, that Sinn Fein hasn’t emerged from the inquiry with clean hands. Having boasted about ‘getting on with the work’ and ‘delivery,’ it does seem odd that they didn’t appear to know all that much about how the RHI scheme was actually being delivered and whether the costings etc had been properly assessed and understood. Perhaps if they had insisted on proper collective responsibility and accountability before signing off on Executive formation with the DUP in 2007, 2011 and 2016, it might have prevented calamity on this scale.
For the DUP, of course, RHI has been a nightmare: and they will be very worried about the report. That’s why a deal to reboot the Executive won’t be struck before the publication of that report; unless, that is, Foster is ‘encouraged’ to step down as leader in the meantime.
It will not be possible for her to take the role of first minister while the shadow of the report hangs over her head. Only the softest, most benign of reports, could save her political skin at this point and the evidence we have heard during the sitting of the inquiry (and massive congratulations to Sam McBride for his superb coverage and analysis) suggests that the report won’t do her or the DUP any favours.
I’m aware that there are people across the DUP who have been wondering how to handle the ‘Arlene problem.’ She knows it, too. But here’s the thing: last February’s potential deal (although I was always sceptical about it happening) foundered on the Irish language. I have heard nothing since then to convince me that there has been a change of thinking within the DUP on that issue: and if there hasn’t been a change, then what does a new leader bring to the table?
That’s not to say that something isn’t possible; but it would require massive compromises from both sides and I’m not sure what those would be. Compromise risks vote loss and it would be a very brave successor to Foster who would begin his leadership with that kind of compromise.
She’s in an awful position: with very little to do now but wait for the findings of the RHI report –knowing that it could be catastrophic for the DUP. And her position isn’t helped by the fact that she and her MPs are having to issue regular warnings to Theresa May about anything which could undermine the Union as the UK leaves the EU.
On November 24 she also has to address the DUP’s annual conference. That will be a difficult speech. She knows it. The party know it. Probably the most difficult speech a DUP leader has had to make since the decision was taken to cut a power-sharing deal with Sinn Fein in 2007.
A final personal reflection. Having watched and written about all of this for the past 20 years – and I was based at the Assembly for some of that time – it would take an awful lot to convince me that we should trust anyone here (politicians or the civil service) to deliver good, effective, responsible, collective, accountable, thought-through government.