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DUP now drinking in the last chance saloon as high noon beckons

Whether she likes it or not, Arlene Foster's future as First Minister of Northern Ireland rests in Sinn Fein's hands, says Daithi McKay

It may be the season of goodwill, but there is very little festive cheer at Stormont. The Speaker of the Assembly, Robin Newton, almost brought the house down by toppling the Good Friday Agreement pillars of equality and joint decision-making in one fell swoop.

Facilitating a statement from the First Minister without the content having been agreed by the Deputy First Minister was unprecedented.

This represented a radical departure from the tradition of Speaker neutrality and fair play, as exemplified by the Derrymen Willie Hay and Mitchel McLaughlin. A third Wise Man was perhaps too much to expect.

The only thing we know for certain is that we cannot be certain about where the cash for ash scandal will leave the folks on the hill in 2017. January 16 represents the First Minister's high noon, when Sinn Fein will introduce a motion calling on her to stand aside. If she does not take a short sabbatical, the institutions will not survive.

Arlene Foster does not need a crystal ball to see that Sinn Fein stands on the cusp of a new order. She is currently more preoccupied with whether she will retain office than whether she will be cohabiting with a new republican on the block. Indeed, all the indications suggest that the Deputy First Minister will soon step aside.

Conor Murphy is the heir apparent, the favourite to be the next resident of Stormont Castle - destined to deliver joint media interviews with the First Minister at the bottom of the castle steps between those two grey gryphons that our dark Irish sense of humour should have already christened with nicknames by now.

At recent Press conferences, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has made reference, on more than one occasion, to the Deputy First Minister's health. Some will see that as a possible signal that there will be an imminent changing of the guard.

McGuinness has been in post for almost 10 years, served alongside three different DUP First Ministers and demonstrated rationality and patience throughout - a patience and resolve that was required to bed the institutions down. His successor may not show the same forbearance.

The RHI debacle is the latest in a long string of DUP scandals. Sinn Fein's desire to make this Executive work requires a careful balancing act. Republican strategy requires stable government in the North. That political strategy may now have to take a hit for the party's own credibility.

There must be a judge-led public inquiry into RHI. That is now the bottom line as far as the ordinary punter is concerned.

Public confidence is at rock bottom. Regardless of the many strands to the RHI story, the fact remains that our First Minister signed off on a scheme in the absence of proper checks and balances, which were included in the British equivalent.

Four hundred million pounds is a hefty price to pay and would certainly sink an equivalent minister in either the Dail or Westminster.

Who ever said that we were intolerant here?

Our problem is that we tolerate too much.

In the 1990s, Irish Labour leader Dick Spring collapsed the Dublin government after relations with then-Taoiseach Albert Reynolds turned sour. This happened not only as a result of a number of scandals, but also because Fianna Fail acted unilaterally without their partners.

Spring looked to the other side of the Dail chamber and stitched together a rainbow coalition, along with Fine Gael and Democratic Left.

One wonders, if the possibility were available, if it would now be more advantageous for our political chieftains to negotiate a more progressive Executive minus the DUP?

Of course, the option to do this does not exist under our system of mandatory coalition. However, the majority of the public are fed up with financial scandals coming from the DUP nest and their efforts to prevent progressive social change in areas such as marriage equality.

There comes a point in every loveless marriage that is being endured "for the sake of the children" when the children grow up and move out, glad to escape the poisonous atmosphere.

The permanent presence of the DUP in government is not the best option for Sinn Fein in the longer term.

It has proven to be the case that even the most basic progressive change has been minimised during a decade of partnership.

The current architecture at the Assembly is no longer fit for purpose - that has been obvious for some time.

With newer and younger faces coming to the fore in northern politics, there is a need for some blue-sky thinking from them about the advantages of hitching their political futures to the DUP for another 10 or 20 years.

Taxpayers will not mind being given the opportunity to pass judgment on the RHI scandal if this debacle results in a fresh election in the New Year. Indeed, the opportunity to give 18 Assembly members their P45s, with the number of representatives now being reduced from 108 down to 90, may prove too tempting to pass up.

We may not end up in that territory, but at the very least there will be another crisis of sorts. Both Sinn Fein and the DUP want to make the Executive work. Their corporate approach has not yet been dealt a mortal blow, but it has been seriously wounded.

Arlene Foster may not realise it yet, but Martin McGuinness was offering her a political lifeline by suggesting she stand aside while the RHI scheme was fully investigated. Her rise or fall, like it or not, rests in the hands of republicans.

By digging her heels in, Arlene Foster made a strategic error that her predecessor, Peter Robinson, had the foresight to sidestep.

Over the coming weeks, she will have to fight for her political survival. The DUP's great white hope could now end up being our shortest-serving First Minister.

But, then again, a week is a long time in politics.

Daithi McKay was Sinn Fein MLA for North Antrim from 2007 until August of this year

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