Sam McBride: Arlene Foster is seeking to reinvent herself as a reformist

The applause which greeted Arlene Foster’s apology for the party’s role in the RHI scandal was clear and perhaps tinged with a hint of relief.

For almost two years now, there has been a sense – initially to those outside the DUP but to an increasing number of party members as well – that Mrs Foster did not seem to comprehend the gravity of the RHI scandal.

Party leader Arlene Foster during the DUP annual conference at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Belfast. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Saturday November 24, 2018. See PA story POLITICS DUP. Photo credit should read: Michael Cooper/PA Wire

Party leader Arlene Foster during the DUP annual conference at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Belfast. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Saturday November 24, 2018. See PA story POLITICS DUP. Photo credit should read: Michael Cooper/PA Wire

Rather than the party being led on this issue by Mrs Foster, there is a sense that the party has led her.

The issue was raised in robust terms at a recent meeting of the party executive and DUP councillors are concerned about it hanging over them as they campaign ahead of May’s council elections.

Mrs Foster’s supporters point to her having at a very early stage – just a fortnight after BBC Spotlight in December 2016 – made a speech to the Assembly in which she said that the absence of cost controls from the RHI scheme was “the deepest political regret of my time in the House”.

However, that carefully calibrated phrase stopped short of an apology and was delivered in the strident tone which has marked most of Mrs Foster’s response to the scandal.

While DUP critics will be sceptical about Saturday’s apology coming almost two years later, it is a shrewd move, pre-empting the inevitable criticism of Sir Patrick Coghlin’s report and allowing DUP councillors to point back to Saturday when voters confront them about RHI.

The apology fitted into a broader and bolder argument from Mrs Foster who attempted to present herself as an agent of radical change who could fix the problems identified by the RHI Inquiry – even though she has been a senior figure in the Stormont Executive for every moment of the ten years of devolution.

And it contained what may be a covert hint of her latest attempt to strike a deal with Sinn Féin to get Stormont back.

With last February’s draft deal perishing on the refusal of the DUP to accept Mrs Foster’s willingness to agree to an Irish language act, the leader’s proposal on Saturday for “a new cultural deal for everyone in Northern Ireland that respects difference and fosters understanding” could be the latest incarnation of the proposed Irish legislation, alongside other issues such as Ulster Scots.

Whether Mrs Foster’s attempt to reinvent herself as a reformist of the system in which she was a central figure for so long can work will first be determined by whether she can survive the outcome of the RHI Inquiry and then persuade both Sinn Féin and her own party to re-enter Stormont.