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UUP should ram modern and progressive message through every letterbox

The RHI scandal has gifted Mike Nesbitt the chance to take on the DUP and stir an apathetic electorate into action

By Ed Curran

If ever an Ulster Unionist leader had a chance to reverse the losses of his party, it is now. Mike Nesbitt is presented with the political opportunity of a lifetime by Arlene Foster and the DUP's inept handling of the RHI scandal.

The result of the election on March 2 will determine the future path of unionism. The bell has sounded for the opening round. Nesbitt's advantage is that Foster is already on the ropes.

As I sat last week in Stormont's Senate chamber listening to the RHI revelations of Dr Andrew McCormick, I couldn't help but feel sympathy for him. Hour after hour he gave evidence a few feet in front of me, his head bowed over the microphone, his every word chosen carefully as only an impartial civil servant could.

Only once did he show a glimmer of agitation. He jabbed his finger in the air as if to emphasise his words - "get in quick" - which had been the message, he believed, to those who had caused the spike in RHI boiler applications.

Get in quick - those three words raised the spectre of insider knowledge passed to others. So yet another line of inquiry is opened. The whole sorry saga of RHI rumbles on, without any resolution, towards election day.

The two most senior civil servants involved, McCormick and David Sterling, both permanent secretaries, have been subjected to an intense public grilling while not one politician has faced a similar ordeal. Nor are any of them destined to do so in advance of the election despite the agreement to hold a public inquiry.

The only casualty to date is a single Spad, the DUP special adviser Andrew Crawford, whose resignation was announced last week by the person with whom he was most involved - former First Minister Mrs Foster.

The evidence points to a monumental failing by Stormont bureaucracy dating back to the launch of the RHI scheme by Foster in 2012. People on the outside could see the scheme's flaws. Those on the inside who administered it were blind to the mistakes. No one has explained why Foster, as Enterprise Minister, and her permanent secretary sat in their respective offices in apparent ignorance.

The PAC evidence to date leads to the conclusion that Foster was in the dark about the emerging RHI financial disaster, presiding over a department where even her permanent secretary did not have sufficient detailed information to brief her.

Of course, the public has not heard the outcome of the internal investigation within the Civil Service, described as "fact-finding" by Mr McCormick. It is not likely to produce any outcome before February, and possibly until after the election.

Many questions remain about the role of the special advisers, who were so close to Foster and the DUP. What influence or otherwise did they exert over RHI decision-making?

Listening intently and taking notes at last week's PAC hearing was Jonathan Bell, the former DUP Enterprise Minister, whose account of how the closure of the RHI scheme was handled differs so spectacularly from Foster's.

In their interviews with the BBC's Stephen Nolan, Foster claimed Bell was aggressive towards her and he claimed she was aggressive towards him. Can they both be right? Whose account of events can the public accept? Given their diametric views on the closure of the RHI scheme, whose recollections are correct?

Only an inquiry can tell us. In the meantime the public is asked to cast votes without any more light being shone in the continuing murk of Stormont today.

While Foster says the evidence to hand suggests she did no wrong, she has accepted, as any minister would, ultimate responsibility. She saw no reason for that to lead to her resignation or even to standing aside during any investigation. She took the view that she is only answerable to the Assembly for her actions. It follows that only the Assembly can determine what if any action is taken against her.

It is worth reminding ourselves of what she has said: "I am sorry that the initial scheme did not contain cost control measures and that there were fundamental flaws in its design. This is the deepest political regret of my time in this House.

"As minister I accept responsibility for the work of the department during my time in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment."

Foster's difficulties facing the electorate are further compounded by events of the past week.

The ailing and outgoing Martin McGuinness has painted Foster as failing to follow her predecessors in building a workable relationship within the Office of First and Deputy First Minister.

North Antrim MP Ian Paisley's generous comments about McGuinness appear a thinly-veiled challenge to Foster's leadership style, especially when he said: "Perhaps if we got back to the same sort of foundation work of building a proper relationship and recognising what that relationship actually means then we can get out of the mess that we are currently in.

"As politicians we have to be more honest, otherwise these crises that we are in today will become a feature of Northern Ireland political life."

Paisley's comments have struck support from some unionists but annoyed others, once again reflecting grassroots differences.

However, the DUP shows no dissent - at least in public - about how Foster has handled RHI or her role in the First Minister's Office.

Only Bell has broken ranks to speak out and he was swiftly suspended, while many in the unionist community are as deeply annoyed about the RHI scandal as are nationalists and republicans.

Whatever the early promise for Northern Ireland of a new DUP leader and First Minister building a Fresh Start with Sinn Fein has disintegrated in a few weeks.

The DUP has entrenched itself behind Foster, dividing itself bitterly from nationalists and republicans and separating itself further from a significant section of middle-ground unionists.

Foster appears to have taken refuge in the traditional unionist politics of west Ulster, retreating to the protection of the Orange halls of Co Fermanagh and the hardline policies of the old-style DUP fundamentalists who have dominated the party for so long. Any prospect of her attracting a broader base of unionism has gone up a biomass boiler chimney.

Perhaps the media jumped to the wrong conclusion when it portrayed Foster as a new broom, a progressive DUP leader, looking to the future from the experience of a difficult past.

Now we are left to wonder if Foster's childhood experiences at the hands of the IRA proved too much for her to build any empathy towards Martin McGuinness.

In standing alongside the former Deputy First Minister on the steps of Stormont Castle, did she only see him as a former terrorist rather than a person with whom she could do business? Is she capable of putting her past sufficiently behind her, as he did, to forge a new future for unionism and Northern Ireland? Only she can answer by her words and actions in the weeks ahead.

How this plays out at the polls remains for the unionist community to answer and for the Ulster Unionists to capitalise upon through its leader Mr Nesbitt and the party's organisation.

The party should be ramming a progressive, modern-day message through every letterbox, highlighting the undoubted failings of Foster and the DUP in handling the RHI crisis, offering a distinctive brand of unionism and leadership to the electorate.

The Ulster Unionists must raise the profile of candidates, many of whom are anonymous figures in this community.

The party needs an in-your-face media advertising campaign that doesn't miss and hit the wall on the RHI scandal. Public awareness needs heightened. The party should be holding meetings up and down the country, stirring an apathetic electorate into action.

To date there is little evidence of such a brash campaign in the making, and yet the next six weeks of campaigning present a unique opportunity that will make or break the Ulster Unionists and the DUP.

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