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DUP's rivals seeking a scalp rather than the truth

By Eilis O'Hanlon

As the old year ended, so the new one begins with calls for the First Minister to step aside pending an inquiry into her handling of the RHI scheme.

What makes this potentially more tricky for Arlene Foster is that it's her partners in government who are now leading the charge.

Never before have the pages of An Phoblacht been read more eagerly by the DUP as Declan Kearney, Sinn Fein national chairperson, takes up his pen to accuse the larger party of "unvarnished arrogance" and of having "lost the run of themselves".

Some might say Sinn Fein has a cheek accusing anyone else on that score, since it practically wrote the book on bluster. None of that helps the First Minister right now, however. She faces the crisis of her political life less than a year after taking up the reins of power, with no obvious solution in sight.

She mishandled the situation from the start by being dismissive of anxiety over the potential £490m overspend from her decision to green light the RHI scheme as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment. She could have defused much of the tension by taking a more conciliatory tone.

She then made the situation more intractable still by effectively challenging her fiercest critics in the Assembly to depose her, knowing they didn't have the numbers to do so. But those who demanded she fall on her sword did so knowing a stand-off was inevitable. That republicans have now upped the ante doesn't change that situation. Their only real power is to collapse the institutions.

Foster might be forced to pay a high price to keep SF on side now that it has theatrically drawn a line in the sand, or she might decide, even at this late hour, to make a noble gesture by finding some way to step aside without seeming as if she's acceding to hostile ultimatums - though her critics would need to resist the urge to triumphalism if she did. And what are the chances of that?

But even if she was gone from her post tomorrow, the damage has been done. With Article 50 set to be triggered within weeks, and serious decisions to be made about Northern Ireland's future in a post-EU world, it looks increasingly as if local politicians are still more interested in playing a cynical game of thrones, in which getting the scalp of the ice queen is more important than finding out the truth of what really went wrong with RHI.

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