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Crisis? Stormont blame game over 'cash for ash' isn't a crisis, it's progress

No one ever said devolution had to be perfect... it just had to be better than the alternative. And so far it is, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

First, Arlene Foster's accusers demand that she come to Stormont a week before Christmas to explain herself. Then, they walk out when she gets up to speak. "Only in Northern Ireland," one might be tempted to think. But that would be wrong.

The current row over how the First Minister handled the controversial, ruinously expensive Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI), when occupying a more junior position is not, whatever the headlines say, the latest manifestation of Ulster's notoriously divisive and dysfunctional system. It's simply an outbreak of common-or-garden political gamesmanship.

It took a while, but finally, Stormont is starting to have full-scale squabbles, whose origins don't date back to the time of the Troubles. A few months ago, it was Nama. Now it's RHI. That's not a crisis. It's progress.

The "cash for ash" controversy is about money. Good, old-fashioned money. Specifically, the waste of it. Because that's what government does - almost by definition.

Politicians are useless with money. They haven't got a clue how it's made, or how it works. Like a footballer's wife with an American Express card, they only know how to spend it in gargantuan quantities.

What they understand even better is party politicking, so that's what reasserted itself yesterday.

Sinn Fein announced grandiosely that they'd lost confidence in the First Minister - while finding a way to not actually vote against her. Clever.

The Ulster Unionists played the school swots by correcting Speaker Robin Newton on the proper procedures for taking a point of order. Clever clogs. The SDLP then tabled a motion to get rid of Mrs Foster, under Section 30 of the 1998 Northern Ireland Act, despite it having less chance of success than a team of oompa loompas playing basketball against the Harlem Globetrotters. Clever? Not so much.

The First Minister, for her part, came out swinging when proceedings recommenced yesterday afternoon, following the earlier walk-out.

Was she speaking as First Minister? DUP leader? MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone? Who knows? Who, apart from political anoraks, really cares? We just wanted to hear what she had to say.

There then followed a couple of hours of festive slapstick, as member after member used his or her five minutes of fame to either attack, or defend, the First Minister.

"Arlene is a lame duck," cried nationalists.

"Oh no she isn't," shouted back (some) unionists.

"Oh yes she is."

And so on.

Well, it is the panto season.

Even Belfast's very own Widow Cranky, aka Gerry Adams, turned up to join in the fun, standing next to Martin McGuinness as the deputy First Minister addressed the media, even though he hasn't been an MLA for five years.

Gerry's checked shirt and corduroy jacket, in contrast to everyone else's work clothes, gave the game away. He doesn't dress like that in the Dail, his actual workplace. He was only up from Dublin for the day for the craic.

This collective giddiness is no excuse for the rest of us to mistake political tomfoolery for a real emergency, or to agree with the Ulster Unionists that the reputation of devolution "has plummeted from the gutter to the sewer".

Them's fighting words, Mike Nesbitt, but do the UUP really want to make a last-ditch stand on this issue?

No one said devolution had to be perfect. It just has to be better than the alternative.

Colum Eastwood went further, speaking of a "disgust" and "anger" in the community over the renewable energy scheme, which, the SDLP leader claimed, overshadowed all else, including the disgrace of paramilitaries being handed huge wads of public cash for being good little boys.

Rather than defusing the situation, Eastwood sounded as if he wanted to talk Ulster into a full-blown crisis.

Insisting that she has behaved throughout with "the highest levels of integrity", the First Minister's response was typically stirring and defiant. The sly digs at the local media betrayed a touch of pantomime, too - oh yes, they did - but she can probably be forgiven that.

When your back's to the wall, you fight. It's up to her enemies to put up, or shut up. They can't expect her to deliver the knock-out blow to herself.

She was also wise to stress that the First Minister's mandate comes from the electorate - not from rival MLAs. The will of the people should not be lightly scorned. What, after all, would the effect be if she did stand aside to await the outcome of a judge-led inquiry?

Such a move wouldn't be unprecedented. Peter Robinson stepped down for a while as First Minister, though that was for personal reasons, and he was always free to return at a time of his own choosing. If Foster did likewise, she'd be a hostage to fortune, waiting for permission to resume a role which is hers by right.

The wait could be lengthy. Judges take their time.

Life would go on if she did. The top post in Government would continue to be held by the DUP. The trains would still run on time. Or still run, at any rate.

But Northern Ireland would be no better off. It would simply allow certain parties up on the Hill to claim bragging rights. Arlene's opponents want the right to say that they "got" her and to present her humiliation to their supporters as a sign that devolution is working for their tribe and it's a long way from clear why she should gift them such a triumph at this time. Allegations are not the same as facts. "Corruption" is too big a word to hang on rumour.

Or is this the way things work now - if a former colleague makes a complaint against you, then you automatically have to step aside while it's investigated? What happened to innocent until proven guilty?

Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir certainly didn't play ball when he faced calls to stand aside pending clarification of what he knew about Sinn Fein's coaching of Nama inquiry witness Jamie Bryson. Is there one law for one side of the chamber and a different law for the other?

If she is guilty of the serious charges now being laid against her, the First Minister should do the decent thing; but the DUP is entitled to stand by its democratically-chosen leader, when she's under fire from opponents who have every selfish reason to want to unseat her. Mud sticks.

Giving in to the demand for Arlene Foster's head on a plate would amount to a recipe for further scheming.

If ministers are forced to stand aside every time doubts are raised about their judgment, or integrity, then they might as well fit their offices with revolving doors.

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