Belfast Telegraph

Arlene Foster will want Northern Ireland election fought on any subject other than RHI cash for ash fiasco

By Suzanne Breen

The Sinn Fein leadership didn't willingly collapse the Northern Ireland Executive over the 'cash for ash' scandal yesterday.

It was forced to take that radical step by its own electorate which was increasingly disillusioned by what they saw as the party's constant capitulation to the DUP. This was a grassroots' revolt with the Shinners' head honchos playing catch-up.

Anger at the Stormont elite in nationalist areas was once confined to dissident hardliners - ex-prisoners bitter at what they saw as a sell-out of traditional republican principles.

But disenchantment with the political institutions is no longer a minority sport in Sinn Fein's heartlands. Since the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) story broke last month, normally moderate citizens have expressed the most militant opinions.

Unlike other scandals such as NAMA, this one hits local people directly in the pocket. Almost £500m of tax-payers' money literally going up in smoke creates a very powerful visual image.

And in winter too when fuel poverty hits the most vulnerable hardest with old people huddled over single bar fires, and mums and dads on the minimum wage telling their kids to put on another jumper as temperatures plummet.

In cafes, pubs, and supermarkets, the chatter about RHI has been relentless with the most mild-mannered, reasonable nationalists demanding Sinn Fein stand up to the DUP.

The party's refusal last month to support a no confidence motion in Arlene Foster in Stormont was deeply unpopular.

Sinn Fein has previously compromised to an extent that seriously challenged its own base.

But the unprecedented public anger on RHI, and the fact that People Before Profit is breathing down its neck in working-class urban areas, meant that the party could no longer run the risk of remaining so dangerously out of touch with nationalist opinion.

So it huffed and puffed and yesterday did bring the house down.

There is no chance of the DUP dumping Arlene Foster. While she is author of her own misfortune - her unbridled arrogance and high-handedness turned a problem into a fully-blown crisis - there is no credible alternative to her as leader in the party's ranks.

The most likely replacement would be DUP deputy leader and North Belfast MP, Nigel Dodds. But he has always seemed content to play second fiddle and has never shown any hunger or passion to take over the reins of power.

And Mrs Foster is genuinely popular with the party's grassroots. Former DUP leader, Peter Robinson, was respected for his intellect but never truly liked. Arlene is loved because of years of travelling the length and breadth of the country to attend minor events in Orange halls and community centres no matter how early or late the hour.

Just a year ago, she had the unionist world at her feet. She seemed to combine the strengths of both her predecessors. She was as smart as Robinson but with Paisley's warmth. She was as tough as nails but she knew how to work a room.

Arlene brought the DUP unprecedented election success in May's Stormont poll and was in prime position to be generous and imaginative in office.

A political trailblazer who shattered the glass ceiling for women in, of all parties, the conservative DUP, there was a tidal wave of goodwill towards her when she became First Minister.

Bar Martin McGuinness, her cabinet were cleanskins - younger politicians who were mostly all school-children during the Troubles and carried no divisive baggage. But great expectations have been dashed.

And it is Arlene, who never marched up mountains in the middle of the night or wore the Ulster Resistance's red beret, who has appeared to nationalists as more bigoted than Paisley or Robinson ever did during their tenure at Stormont.

There has been not one significant attempt to reach out to anyone beyond her own narrow political base. DUP Sports Minister, Paul Givan, kicked a Gaelic football for the first time in November in what appeared to be a bridge-building exercise.

Then, he threw a political hand grenade at nationalists just before Christmas when he cut Liofa's £50,000 Irish language bursaries.

Arlene's tone throughout the RHI scandal has been hopelessly misjudged. Sniping and sneering at your rivals at every opportunity is not effective crisis management.

Had she adopted a humble, contrite approach and agreed to a public inquiry at the very start, the mess that she is now facing could have been avoided. Standing aside for four weeks to facilitate an independent investigation was hardly a big ask.

She played the gender and Orange cards in the past week when they were utterly irrelevant, and diminished her own reputation in the process. Many of us thought she was far better than that.

Her political rivals haven't actually landed any successful blows on the DUP leader, it is Arlene who is damaging herself.

I have never seen any party leader in Northern Ireland so extensively ridiculed.

Of course, the DUP is right when it says that someone like Gerry Adams, who failed to disclose vital evidence in a child sex abuse case for 10 years, is in no position to call for anyone's resignation.

But the fact remains that Jim Allister, Mike Nesbitt, Naomi Long, Claire Hanna and a whole host of others without a hotline to P O'Neill, also believed she should step aside.

After her impressive electoral victory just six months ago, Arlene never thought she would be taking to the campaign trail so quickly again in such negative circumstances.

She most certainly isn't finished politically, and the bookies odds would still favour her party emerging as top dog post-election.

The DUP will attempt to pen a siege-type narrative with a strong unionist leader under threat from treacherous republicans.

That may well suit Sinn Fein in rallying its community and bringing out to vote those nationalists who have stayed at home in recent elections.

Indeed, Martin McGuinness's resignation letter - in which he referred to the DUP's attitude to women, the LGBT community, and ethnic minorities - may actually suit that party because the DUP will want the election fought on any subject other than 'cash for ash'.

The challenge for its Ulster Unionist, TUV, and Alliance rivals is to keep a laser sharp focus on RHI, and prevent the campaign descending into yet another orange versus green battle.

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