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Arlene Foster damaged as First Minister but safe as party leader

By Fionola Meredith

When the DUP is attacked, it comes back harder - a Trump-style tactic that the party traditionally uses when confronted with difficult questions, criticisms or dissent.

Arlene Foster is no exception. She may have started off in the woollier ranks of the Ulster Unionist Party, but she's a true-blue DUP woman at heart, and leadership of the party has only reinforced that bond.

So when Foster was called upon to account for herself, following the Jonathan Bell allegations, she came out swinging.

And when she finally stood up in Stormont to speak about the RHI scandal yesterday, she gave it to them good, despite the fact that there was nobody there - the other parties had all walked out ahead of her address.

"Cowards": that was what Mrs Foster, in ringing tones, called her political opponents.

Cowards who "couldn't be bothered to show up".

With regard to the failed no confidence motion against her, she said it was nothing short of an attempted coup d'etat - but a coup more worthy of a Carry On film.

The motion reduced politics to a soap opera or a TV drama, she said, "but not a believable one at that".

This, in my view, was a serious misjudgement of tone.

Carping, sniping and jibing at your enemies may be a well-thumbed chapter of the DUP play-book.

But on this day of all days, when public trust and confidence in the Stormont institutions was at its lowest ever ebb, and governance issues of fundamental gravity were at stake - not to mention hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money - no, now was not the time to indulge in the customary sneering and jeering.

To be fair to Mrs Foster, there were moments where she struck a more dignified tone, acknowledging responsibility for her own role in the affair.

"While it may have been lost amidst the media hype, I am on record as saying I entirely accept that I am accountable to the Assembly for the actions of the department during my tenure as minister," she said.

And she added: "I am sorry that the initial scheme did not contain cost control measures and that there were fundamental flaws in its design.

"This is the deepest political regret of my time in this House." Indeed, Mrs Foster claimed that she was "not immune to the considerable anger and frustration this issue has caused" in the population as a whole.

"Not only do I understand it, I feel it too," she said.

"I share those emotions because I am proud of this place and I want the best for it."

That's better.

Now how are we going to get our cash back, Arlene?

And while you're at it, could you tell us who stood to benefit from the RHI scheme?

Of course, there was plenty more of the language of the schoolyard.

"They can't gang up and kick out the elected leader of unionism," said Mrs Foster.

Swagger and bravado again, when what we really needed was dignity, gravitas and humility.

A step up, rather than a step down.

This was also why her effusive thanks to members of the public, who had called her offices at Stormont - "and indeed DUP offices across the length and breadth of Northern Ireland" - to offer words of support and encouragement sounded wrong too.

It implied that she, and by extension the DUP, was the wronged party here, the victim, unfairly suffering the indignities of trial by media.

But we don't want words of coy self-comfort from the leader of our country, we want answers and clarity and maximum accountability.

There's been a welter of speculative punditry throughout the last few days over Arlene Foster's response to the RHI issue.

But political analyst Brian Walker provided an unusual take on events by writing an alternative statement by the First Minister to the Assembly - a draft of "what Arlene might have said", rather than what she actually did say.

In it, Walker's alternative Arlene - a dignified, straight-talking figure - called for a judicial inquiry and offered to submit to a subsequent vote of confidence.

"In the meantime, I apologise if in defending my own position I have at times seemed arrogant and too dismissive of fair criticism," said the imaginary Arlene Foster of Walker's imagination.

"I will submit myself to the justice of the House when the evidence is impartially weighed in order to save the Assembly and avoid a wholly unnecessary election.

"If a substantial majority of the rest of this House votes in favour of the motion of confidence, I will resign from office."

As Walker indicates, Mrs Foster would be better advised to take a deeply serious stance that truly lays her integrity on the line, and accepts all possible consequences, if she wishes to emerge from these turbulent days with any degree of credibility.

Indeed, Arlene Foster's current predicament - struggling to explain and account for the stinking mess of RHI - seems particularly ironic considering she was considered a solid pair of hands, demonstrably reliant and competent, when she took over as leader of the DUP.

What's more, the DUP election campaign, back in May, was built around Arlene and her personality.

It was a fairly safe bet for the party, and it was one which paid off when they came back with a repeat of their best-ever Stormont victory.

Since then, Mrs Foster has appeared to enjoy a comfortable - some say too comfortable - and business-like arrangement with Martin McGuinness and Sinn Fein.

Until now, of course, when Mr McGuinness suggested she temporarily step aside as First Minister, and was slapped down firmly for his trouble.

Of course, Mrs Foster is factually correct when she says that the SDLP, UUP and other cannot "gang up and kick out the elected leader of unionism".

This is true: she's going nowhere.

The only way she could be forced out of office is if there was an appetite to replace her within the DUP - which there isn't - or if Sinn Fein threatened to walk away from the Executive, which it won't, given that Sinn Fein has no desire to collapse Stormont.

In the absence of damning new evidence, Mrs Foster is free and clear - and defiantly, bullishly off the hook.

So she can afford to swagger as much as she likes.

Her leadership of the party is safe.

But her leadership of the country, as First Minister of Northern Ireland, has been damaged, no matter what the outcome of any inquiry.

The DUP's default mode of circling the wagons, snarling in all directions, is an insufficient response to a scandal of this magnitude.

Arlene Foster should learn that humility can be a strength, not a weakness.

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