When the DUP get something wrong – and, in fairness, they are usually pretty surefooted – they get it spectacularly wrong.
Almost every day since December 6, when Spotlight broke the story about RHI, has brought either bad or embarrassing news for the party generally and Arlene Foster in particular; and almost every day the party has managed to make an absolute dog’s dinner of responding to that news.
So bad has their handling been, that the perception of Foster as a competent minister and safe pair of hands has been shredded. The party was also spectacularly stupid to believe that the story would be rolled over by the Christmas rush: instead, newspapers have put on sales and news programmes have been attracting bigger audiences.
Foster has already survived one vote of no confidence, but in such pantomime circumstances that her political and personal credibility was badly damaged anyway.
The Official Opposition and the media still have the bit between their teeth and Sinn Fein has warned her that if she doesn’t step aside to facilitate an investigation, then ‘grave consequences’ will follow. The story shows no sign of disappearing anytime soon. All of which is a nightmare for Foster, who was put in place to distract attention from Robinson and Nama.
My gut instinct is that she will survive as leader and first minister. The DUP can’t be seen to dump (which, for all their denials, is precisely what happened to Paisley and Robinson) their third leader in eight years and nor can they get away with another ‘coronation’ replacement. They can’t be seen to have been pushed around by McGuinness, Nesbitt, Eastwood, Allister, Stephen Nolan, or this newspaper’s Sam McBride. They can’t be seen as owning up to incompetence, ineptitude and serial irresponsibility. They can’t be seen as divided. They can’t be seen as admitting that, when it comes down to basic realities, they just aren’t very good at government.
The biggest story of all – bigger than RHI – is that when it comes to governing and making tough decisions, the Executive has been clinically useless. Add the RHI saga to the Dee Stitt/Charter NI shambles; then continue to add on the mess that is our infrastructure system, failing health service, under-performing educational provision, lack of clarity over Brexit, continuing failure to use money wisely in terms of investment and constantly having to trot over to one chancellor of the exchequer after another to bail us out. Then add to that the serial political crises at the end of each year. Then keep on adding, with the failure to deal with the big-ticket issues like paramilitarism, legacy, social integration and building the ‘new era’ Northern Ireland. And don’t forget to factor in an abysmal failure to tackle moral issues without resorting to petitions-of-concern.
We’ve had different types of Executive since December 1999: one with the UUP/SDLP/SF and the DUP neither in nor out. Then one with the DUP/SF/UUP/SDLP. Then one with the DUP/SF/UUP/SDLP/Alliance. Then the UUP left. Then the latest one, with DUP/SF/Claire Sugden. And all of them, every single one of them, has included walkouts, in/outs, suspensions, show downs, crises, instability, threats of legal action, emergency talks, potential collapse and round-the-clock briefing against each other.
And the present one, the Fresh Start, non-aggression pact, we’ve-taken-joint-control Executive, is teetering on the brink just seven months into the mandate.
So maybe, just maybe, we need to face the fact that the Assembly and Executive are a waste of time? Yes, the DUP and Sinn Fein can probably dig out the fudge, sticking plasters and paint-pot and make a pretence of repairing the damage; but everyone will know that it remains a sham marriage. The UUP and SDLP had a pretty ham-fisted relationship between 1998 and 2003 and they still disagree on a huge range of political/social/moral/economic/constitutional issues; so I’m pretty sure they don’t represent a credible alternative to the present mess. Putting all five parties in the Executive didn’t work before and I can think of no reason why it would work again. Alliance, Greens and People Before Profit describe themselves as a cross-community alternative, but there isn’t a shred of evidence to indicate substantial electoral growth anytime soon. And there isn’t another electoral/political vehicle on the horizon to defy the odds and snatch victory.
I supported the Good Friday Agreement for two reasons: I believed/hoped that working together would produce the trust required to build a ‘new’ Northern Ireland; and I believed/hoped that new, post-conflict political/electoral vehicles would emerge.
I acknowledged in articles at the time that none of it would be easy: “But given the present circumstances, what we have endured and where we have come from, the risks involved are surely worth taking.”
Given that what we have now is conflict stalemate, conflict-mindset politics and crap government I was clearly wrong in my assessment of almost 20 years ago.
That said, I couldn’t see any other way out of the chaos we had endured between 1968 and 1998.
The bad news is that I don’t see an alternative to the Assembly/Executive. Direct Rule is not returning. Joint sovereignty isn’t happening. No new political parties will be emerging anytime soon to challenge the gloomy, “sure it’s better than it used to be” status quo. We’re doomed to live in our ‘dreary steeples’ world for a long, long time to come. And on that upbeat note, let me wish you all a productive and happy 2017; and thanks for dropping in on the column in 2016.