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Northern Ireland public deserves better than this tawdry theatre

By Suzanne Breen

Remember those heady times in the peace process when everything seemed possible politically in Northern Ireland and even old cynic Van Morrison sang about how there would be "Days like this".

Well, he certainly didn't mean a day like we witnessed yesterday in Stormont, which has debased our political institutions and given a whole new meaning to their already recognised dysfunctionality.

Ordinary people across Northern Ireland hoped that some light would have been shed on just how £400m of public money is to be squandered on the now notorious cash for ash scheme.

Instead, they got a day of drama with slanging matches, Opposition walkouts, accusations, and counter-accusations - but no answers and no hope of any answers to come. Everything remains as it was.

The head of not one civil servant, special adviser, or politician rolled, and there is no reason to believe that will change. The buck stops nowhere and it looks like it never will.

The ordinary people who don't have the huge, inflated salaries of the Stormont elite deserve better. They deserve answers and accountability.

They may not have navigated through all the documents and minutiae of the scandal, but they know that something very dark has taken place and that there is a rottenness in a system which fails to address that.

Arlene Foster started the day with a typically bullish message on Facebook, "Arise, Go Forth, and Conquer". Her mettle cannot be doubted. It was all guns blazing in the Assembly.

If there was a hint of contrition in her speech, it was only for a split-second and then it was back to a scatter-gun approach to the blame game. She has the unanimous support and admiration of her party, but it remains to be seen just how the Iron Lady strategy, so reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher, will play with unionist grassroots.

There is a hair's breadth difference between imperiousness and arrogance. Anger about cash for ash is palpable among pensioners, ex-servicemen, and struggling families - the very ordinary folk with whom Arlene prides herself on connecting with. Agreeing to a judge-led inquiry, with the power to compel witnesses, would have placed the DUP on higher moral ground. It chose not to do that, but instead to fight to survive in the here and now.

Although yesterday wasn't pretty, the party succeeded in its aims. The scandal has been kicked into the long grass of 2017. The DUP has bought a vital few weeks to work out a plan with Sinn Fein, away from the bombardment of daily new revelations in the media.

Make no mistake about it, a sequencing of events between the two parties to outmanoeuvre the Opposition and take the heat out of the fire will be agreed. Expect a plethora of good news announcements in January, too.

The only imminent danger to the DUP will be if details of other Renewable Heat Incentive beneficiaries close to the party emerge. That would give serious legs to the crisis in the New Year.

While the DUP flexed its muscles yesterday, its partner in government appeared totally impotent. Sinn Fein had talked tough on Sunday, warning of dire consequences if Arlene acted alone. But in the heat of battle, it blinked, and that capitulation won't go down well with the nationalist community.

The party entered Stormont pledging to put manners on the establishment. It would be the attack dog for the little person. Yesterday, it looked like the poodle of the DUP, yelping a bit but still quite prepared to trot along at its master's side. Django Unchained, it was not.

The SDLP, by comparison, played a blinder. This is the first time since Colum Eastwood became leader that it has successfully found an issue on which it is trouncing the Shinners. For a party that has been plagued by a wishy-washy, wimpy image, it came out by far as the stronger, bolshier nationalist voice.

People Before Profit struck a chord too, when Gerry Carroll spoke of how the scandal was viewed by those on the breadline facing the choice this Christmas of whether to heat or eat.

There were some hard-hitting speeches from the Ulster Unionist benches, and Jim Allister was his usual forensic self.

But ordinary folk across Northern Ireland won't care about the winners and losers of the debate.

They will be angry that, despite the theatrics, we are no nearer to the truth about the greatest financial scandal of our time. Yesterday was the day that shamed Stormont.

Belfast Telegraph

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