Belfast Telegraph

Arlene Foster survival seems guaranteed but her credibility hangs in balance

By Suzanne Breen

A year ago tomorrow, Jonathan Bell warmly embraced Arlene Foster as she was crowned DUP leader at a rousing gathering in east Belfast. "There are great days ahead for all of us in Northern Ireland," he proclaimed as he proudly posted the photographs on Facebook.

Little could anyone have guessed that as the first anniversary of Arlene's ascendancy occurs, the then smiling Strangford MLA would be posing a mammoth threat to her political life.

Mrs Foster is as tough as they come and she will employ every ounce of that resourcefulness and ruthlessness to tackle Jonathan's Bell's challenge. There is currently no threat to her remaining DUP leader and First Minister.

She has the widespread support of her party - there isn't one credible alternative to take over. And, at Stormont, Sinn Fein has shown no appetite for seriously and substantially criticising the DUP since the 'cash for ash' scandal broke.

But while Mrs Foster's survival seems guaranteed, what hangs in the balance is her credibility. The DUP leader's account of her role and that of her special advisers (Spads) is in direct conflict with her MLA's assertions. The public will have to decide who to believe. The outcome will also centre on whose version of events is corroborated by the paper trail. The statements of senior civil servants will be crucial.

The DUP is very fortunate that another Assembly election is five years away. In May's poll, the party traded strongly on Mrs Foster's huge personal popularity within the unionist community.

And now its hitherto greatest asset is under the spotlight like never before.

Her honeymoon period is well and truly over. The image of 'Arlene from Fermanagh' who rang Q Radio to give a weather update has been overtaken by a minister whom her critics say must take personal responsibility for a scheme which wasted £400m of public money.

With every hospital closed and every school budget cut, over coming months and years, they will point to her and allege, 'You squandered the funds which would have stopped this'.

There is also much at stake for Mr Bell.

<< Listen to Mrs Foster's full interview >>

His allegations against Mrs Foster and several Spads are of seismic proportions. If the documents contradict him, he will be blown out of the water.

Last night, he was the tearful assassin. But despite the drama of that moment, his evidence was delivered largely in a calm and confident fashion.

Mrs Foster fought back with her own accusations that her opponent was aggressive.

In parts, it was the typical bullish performance that we have come to expect from her but yet, in the latter half of the interview, it was clear that she is a woman whose career is under immense pressure.

Jonathan Bell has undoubtedly only hours left in the DUP.

When former Belfast councillor Ruth Patterson gave an interview to this newspaper last year criticising Emma Pengelly's selection as an MLA, the party officers met swiftly and the letter in the post expelling her arrived within days.

Mr Bell, whose 'crimes against the party' will be considered far weightier than Ms Patterson's, will be dealt with just as mercilessly.

He will pay a high personal price for what he did last night. Despite their current claims against each other, he and Mrs Foster go back almost 30 years to their student days at Queen's University.

And even in relatively recent times, they have been friends. They are pictured smiling side-by-side together at the sham fight at Scarva, and countless other events.

The Strangford MLA is in the same Orange lodge as many of his Stormont colleagues. He will likely now face isolation and ostracisation in the very circles he was once most warmly welcomed.

He dropped this bombshell from the Assembly's backbenches. He was left out of the DUP's top team after the Assembly election. It is difficult to imagine that had the ministerial car not been removed, he would be whistle-blowing.

Yet he insists that there are civil service witnesses and documents to back up his allegations. Only time will tell.

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