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Arlene may be able to survive this siege, but Stormont needs to be more accountable

By Jon Tonge

Even the siege of Derry only lasted 105 days. Yet there seems no end in sight for the Siege of Arlene. Foster's travails over RHI revelations continue apace and pressure for her removal continues to mount.

The questions of hearths and (journalist) hands continue to undermine the beleaguered First Minister.

For the lucky winners of the most botched scheme in Northern Ireland's history, booty calls.

That the RHI scandal could have been better handled by the normally sure-footed DUP - and Foster - is beyond question.

The bullish tone of the First Minister's pre-Christmas Assembly speech jarred. Unqualified contrition would have been far better.

A sincere apology is not the same as liability. It could have been offered.

The preposterous misogyny offering - as if concern for fiscal prudence and woman-hating are somehow inextricably linked - was the nadir (so far) of the sorry saga.

The First Minister seems to enjoy doing strident.

Witness her dismissal of the Taoiseach's plan for a civic forum for dialogue on Brexit as a 'complete grandstanding exercise' for 'remoaners'.

That dismissal was entertaining, but Brexit sacrifices £260m of annual EU subsidies to Northern Ireland's farmers - far more damaging financially than the RHI debacle - and raises very serious cross-border issues. Enda Kenny deserved better for trying to help.

In Foster's defence on RHI, the pressure for her to stand aside can be challenged. If every Prime Minister had to step aside on the basis of previous cock-ups emerging in their former ministry, there would be a vacancy every six months at Westminster.

True, the RHI scandal represents incompetence on an industrial, mind-boggling scale, an episode of such crassness it almost defies belief.

Yet an inquiry will take place and the First Minister can fairly plead an 'innocent until proven guilty' case. A full inquiry will take time. The four week step aside period for the preliminary report demanded by Sinn Fein begs the question of what happens if - as is possible - an interim verdict is inconclusive?

It is logical for Mike Nesbitt (below) and Colum Eastwood to call for Foster's head? What opposition leadership would not?

Yet, if Foster continues to tough things out, attention will need to re-focus upon the level of criticism of her in an inquiry that would force a resignation.

The key issues here are the absolute independence, impartiality and precision of the investigation, which needs to be of a clarity that a culpable minister cannot spin a way out of its conclusions.

Beyond the investigation, the opposition parties need to propose substantial reforms of Stormont's workings to help prevent repeat fiascos.

This goes well beyond demanding a ministerial scalp which, in isolation, would achieve little.

Reforms should include the removal of the Executive's majority on the Public Accounts Committee (and others), shadow ministers for each ministry and the ability of the Opposition to demand independent audits of ministries in the event of serious concerns.

The First Minister ought to welcome more robust accountability.

For our book on the DUP, Foster lauded the St Andrews Agreement, claiming it made the Executive 'more accountable. Now when a minister makes a decision which is novel or contentious, it can be called into the Executive and we can challenge that ... Bairbre De Brun could do what she liked because she was the minister and she was her department and could take decisions in that way'.

Yet neither the Good Friday Agreement nor its successor dealt adequately with ministerial accountability. That the UUP and SDLP, when part of the Executive, assumed that everything was tickety-boo regarding the RHI scheme - and opposed its closure - shows how each part of a supposedly joined-up Executive was merely a collection of private party ministries.

Only the party in charge of the ministry knew what was happening - the grim truth hidden until it was too late.

An election will achieve little.

Under pressure from its base, Sinn Fein is now allowing scant wriggle room on whether the First Minister should stand aside temporarily to prevent collapsing the Executive, whilst being less clear over the precise nature of an investigation. Should Sinn Fein go nuclear, what lies in store in a snap election? Republicans might hope that the DUP brand has become sufficiently toxic for a big loss of seats to a revitalised UUP, allowing Martin McGuinness to become First Minister.

Yet the current DFM is unwell and may not want the job. Sinn Fein lost 10,000 votes in the Assembly elections last year and cannot be guaranteed progress this time. Whilst some electoral punishment for the DUP is probable, the party has defied political gravity in the past.

Old sectarian rallying cries may be less potent than was once the case, but ask a unionist whether they would rather pay £50 per year for a heating scandal or have a Sinn Fein First Minister, and the response won't be rooted in economics. The UUP could expect to inflict the electoral damage it failed to wreak last year, but a 38-16 seat gap won't be dramatically altered.

Perhaps the biggest reason of all that an elections seems very unlikely is that most of the current 108 MLAs love - and in many cases need - their jobs, so why would they bring on a contest in which one in six of them are guaranteed to lose their jobs as the Assembly is reduced in size?

So what is most likely to happen next? Arlene's fate rests upon the continuing support of the bulk of the DUP's MLAs and MPs and the party's special advisers. Not everyone is happy. Ex-MLA David McIlveen has broken ranks, but the problem there lies in the 'ex-MLA' prefix.

An involuntary DUP 'ex-MLA' is about as common as, er, a financial loser among those availing themselves of the RHI scheme. Meanwhile, Jonathan Bell has presumably gone to spend more time on his PhD on Peter Robinson. Any threats from within the DUP might be containable.

Yet the external pressure will remain, unless an inquiry can at least partially exonerate the First Minister - and that might take months, if deliverance ever comes. The siege might be survivable, but the breaking of the boom still seems a long way off.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics and co-author of The Democratic Unionist Party: From Protest to Power (Oxford University Press). He directed the 2010 and 2015 NI General Election surveys

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