Whether Arlene Foster can survive this crazy episode will depend on how much internal backing she has
RHI scandal has cast a critical spotlight on First Minister, but debacle also shows how flawed system at Stormont really is, says Jon Tonge
Fiasco. Embarrassment. Debacle. Whatever your favourite choice of adjective for the madness of the Renewal Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme, the sorry saga raises broader questions about the nature of Northern Ireland's largest party and its system of government. These problems will not disappear, regardless of Arlene Foster's ultimate fate.
For the DUP the rapid transition from protest to power has been difficult. In office the party soon found that the bombast and bravado of previous decades were inadequate. Diligence and detail was needed. What sufficed for political action during the conflict was nowhere near adequate to meet the complex demands of devolved government. That's why Ian Paisley did not last long as First Minister. Peter Robinson offered a better grasp but found himself dogged by a succession of allegations. The cumulative toll of those claims hastened his departure. Cue Foster, seemingly ticking lots of unionist political and religious boxes, broadening the DUP's reach, and largely untainted by controversy. She had, of course, left the UUP years earlier partly because of its, er, incompetence in office…
That Foster's ministerial record had not been heavily scrutinised up to this point is hardly surprising. Scrutiny has been something the Executive and Assembly have palpably failed to undertake. The Executive has never been the sum of its parts, never developing beyond a collection of party fiefdoms, immune from criticisms on which ministers - as party agents - might act. This is power divided, not power-shared, and is accompanied by benevolence from coalition partners in return for turning a blind eye to poor administration in their own parts of government.
The price of this insulation is now laid bare. Too many MLAs have taken the view that scrutiny equals mutiny where their own party's ministers are concerned. The tribal, siren appeals to ethno-national loyalty heard at election time - vote DUP or Martin takes over - are replicated within parties at the Assembly. Honest, reflective criticism is almost non-existent within the tight and disciplined structures of the DUP and Sinn Fein. That's what makes the Jonathan Bell intervention so startling. The DUP and Sinn Fein's embrace in a loveless marriage makes things worse. Couples in that state exchange pleasantries but take care not to probe too deeply for fear of upsetting the delicate equilibrium.
In defence of Foster and the DUP, they did not create the system of government that protects ministers. The DUP did not establish the absurd system (albeit one that copies Westminster) in which the main potential scrutiny vehicle, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), contains more members of the main governing party than any other representatives. So there will be more DUP members (four) than those from any other party examining what the DUP has been up to in office. Maybe I should let my students mark their own essays? Or Northern Ireland's remand prisoners choose their preferred judge? If the PAC wants to be seen as a serious, non-partisan scrutineer, it does not need an in-built Executive majority, but seven of its 11 members are drawn from Executive parties.
Assuming she did refer unspecified concerns about the RHI scheme to her civil servants, Foster was entitled to a quicker briefing of the unworkability of the scheme. The traditional model of ministerial accountability once espoused by Herbert Morrison - "the minister is responsible for every stamp on every envelope" - is long defunct and unworkable. Foster was entitled to see potential costings and receive useful advice. That said, the lack of capping of payments looks policy, not detail, to me - so the minister is culpable - and a competent GCSE mathematics student could have spotted the huge potential liabilities and called time much earlier.
It might be tempting to see the formation of an official Opposition as the cavalry coming over the hill to prevent more RHI-type madness. Opposition may help, but it is hardly a panacea unless better resourcing is available to non-Executive parties. They need Shadow ministers and more time and capacity for investigation - but there won't be too many takers among Northern Ireland's voters for more money to be diverted towards politics at Stormont.
Whether Foster can survive this crazy episode depends on how much internal backing she enjoys. External calls for her head can be swatted away by the DUP's reliable device of choice, a petition of concern. Internally, there is a small group still resentful of Paisley's premature exit, and another suspicious or resentful of ex-UUP types. For his part Bell was close to Robinson and knows where the DUP's bodies are buried. In Foster versus Bell however, few will price up Bell as favourite.
Generally, Foster was seen as a popular and electorally logical choice for DUP leader and, although she is clearly damaged, that view still holds. Given that - unusually - the next election is distant, the internal view might be to let the heat (obvious pun intended) die down. The DUP brethren are loyal, but also do ruthless very well, however this may not be the time for disposal. Foster was palpably an asset as her party performed very well only seven months ago in the Assembly election, so she has electoral credit in the bank. Yet, the bill for the heating saga will still be being paid come the next polling day.
If Foster chooses (mainly voluntarily) to depart, there is the prospect of the first-ever DUP leadership contest, unless Simon Hamilton is bequeathed the crown, or Nigel Dodds decides being at Westminster isn't a barrier to being leader after all. The electorate would be narrow: a 'talent' pool of 38 DUP MLAs - almost all hardworking and good constituency representatives, but of varying quality, plus eight MPs and one MEP. The reservoir of potential ministers and a party leader is small. The DUP is 'old school' and untypical in not permitting its members to choose the leader. Regardless, a change of First Minister or DUP leader is only a quick non-fix. It will not, in isolation, solve the much broader problems of Executive accountability and scrutiny.
- Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author of The Democratic Unionist Party: From Protest To Power (Oxford University Press).