In 30 or so years of observing and writing about the DUP I don’t think I have seen them make such a calamitous dog’s dinner of a problem as they have of the RHI saga.
Look how well they handled the U-turns on not destroying the Assembly in 1998, or on cutting a deal with Sinn Fein in 2007; getting rid of Ian Paisley; handling the departure of Jim Allister and the birth of TUV; riding out the RedSky embarrassment; and then easing Peter Robinson aside when it looked as if the Nama revelations would do electoral damage. All huge problems for the party and all dealt with reasonably quickly and, when required, utterly ruthlessly. It’s what we’ve come to expect from the DUP.
And it’s not as if RHI couldn’t have been dealt with right from the start. The blame clearly lies, singly or in combination, with a DUP minister, DUP special advisors and departmental civil servants. All Foster had to do when she returned from China and gave an interview to the BBC’s Mark Devenport, was: acknowledge the scale of the problem, shoulder the blame in her role as joint head of the government, announce a rigorous investigation involving civil service staff and DUP advisors, promise an early return of the Assembly in January to debate the issue, keep the other Assembly parties fully briefed and, depending on what the evidence uncovered, ensured that tails were pinned on the necessary donkeys.
She chose not to do that in the initial interview: and in failing to do so ensured a drip-drip series of allegations and revelations that has now continued for 34 days.
Worse, in subsequent interviews with Stephen Nolan and Sky’s David Blevins and in a series of responses during the recalled Assembly on December 19, her behavior became imperious, petulant, personal and petty.
At a time when leadership and humility was required she opted for hubris and provocation. The problem for Mrs Foster – and it may soon be an electoral problem for the DUP – is that she has singularly and spectacularly damaged her own reputation for competence.
There isn’t and hasn’t been a single shred of evidence to suggest that she is guilty of anything criminal or fraudulent. That was always the strongest card she had to play. But what has happened since December 6, the day Spotlight broke the story, is that the public perception has grown of her that she is incapable of owning up to the fact that the story involves monumental ineptitude, serial stupidity, administrative blindness and gold-plated recklessness when it comes to the public purse.
This isn’t and never was a story driven by the media, her political opponents, Sinn Fein, or even misogynists. This is and always was a story about hundreds of millions of pounds and why the problems weren’t spotted and dealt with earlier.
Leadership – be it of a business, a political party, or a government – involves taking responsibility: even if you weren’t personally responsible. It’s one of the prices you pay for leadership. It also means resolving the problem, lessening the impact and restoring confidence. None of which Foster – at least in the eyes of the general public – seems to have done. And I’m not convinced that she appreciates the scale of the problem she faces in terms of her reputation. A month later and this story is still attracting massive attention; primarily because ordinary people are genuinely interested and genuinely angry.
I didn’t support the no-confidence motion in her on December 19, because I believed that it fed the impression of potential malfeasance on her part. And, as I argued at the time, the available evidence and lack of concrete facts made it extraordinarily difficult to know what was and wasn’t true. It was too early for such a motion.
That said, I also argued that she needed to display humility and go out of her way to convince the public that she was ‘fessing up and getting to grips with what was a very specific, very particular problem for the DUP. As it happens, the day ended in farce and she emerged from it very much worse than she went in: a Pyrrhic victory, in other words. And the removal of Robin Newton, the DUP speaker, is now unavoidable.
What started as a problem for the DUP and civil servants – which could, I think, have been handled in a reasonably simple way – has evolved into a crisis that could crash the Executive and force an early election. And, irrespective of what happens, the DUP/SF non-aggression pact is now in tatters. Also, I can’t recall a time when hostility towards the Assembly and how we are governed has been so great among people of all parties and none.
This is largely Foster’s doing. She has, practically single-handedly, been responsible for the present chaos we now find ourselves in. It’s almost as if she doesn’t care if the process collapses: almost as if she’ll do and say anything to avoid shouldering the blame. Maybe she thinks the DUP is unassailable in electoral terms. Maybe she thinks she is unassailable in terms of party leadership. Maybe she thinks the unionist electorate will put up with anything – so long as a ‘Shinner’ doesn’t get the title of first minister.
Whatever her thinking may be I’m pretty sure it’s not the thinking, or behaviour, which would be deemed acceptable by any other leader in any other part of the United Kingdom. It really is time she stood aside as first minister. Immediately and permanently.