Belfast Telegraph

RHI: Arlene Foster a portrait of coolness under fire as startling insights into life at Stormont tumbled out

Arlene Foster at the RHI Inquiry yesterday
Arlene Foster at the RHI Inquiry yesterday

Lindy McDowell

A body language expert would, of course, have a field day. With Arlene. With all of them, really. But yesterday the focus was entirely upon Arlene, solemnly centre stage in the RHI hot seat - looking at times how the rest of us feel when by-passing the 'Anything to Declare' channel at the airport.

The odd self-conscious wee laugh. Much hand gesturing. Eyes straight ahead. At one point she snapped on a silver bangle. But otherwise minimal fidgeting or fiddling with her hair.

Our former First Minister was dressed in a dark navy shade of 'I Mean Business', enlivened only by that silver brooch she's so very fond of. Mrs Foster was dressed like the lawyer she is.

A tad defensive at times - arms folded across her body. Hands clasped and, from time to time, a little sighing - although the latter may well have been down to tiredness. Several hours of persistent grilling would take it out of the best of us.

David Scoffield QC, counsel for the inquiry, does not take the sabre-tongued assassin approach. His questioning is quiet, firm, meticulous. And relentless.

Mrs Foster, in fairness, was rarely flummoxed, although as had previously been pointed out, after perusal of her written statements to the inquiry, she did concede occasional difficulty recalling various incidents and exchanges.

Unlike the rest of us, however, she didn't resort to a stark "I dunno" but opted instead for more lawyerly comment along the lines of "As far as I can remember... I stand to be corrected... It's my understanding..."

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Inquiries into who said what at meetings between ministers and civil servants are rarely the stuff of compulsive viewing. So this should have been Dullsville.

"If you look at w, i, t, two, one, zero, nine..." Mr Scoffield would intone. Or: "If we turn to your fourth witness statement, paragraph 20..."

But what was spewing forth yesterday, against the sedate maroon leather and dark wood backdrop of inquiry formality, and amid the restrained question-and-answer to and fro, was a startling gut-spilling about how business was done in our Assembly, about the power of Spads (Stormont's seemingly boundless legion of Thomas Cromwell wannabes) and, not least, the acid personal relationship between Mrs Foster and the man she called "Minister Bell".

In an Arctic voice no amount of biomass boilers could temper, the former First Minister told inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin about "her great regret" that she hadn't dismissed Minister Bell when she had the chance.

Again and again she made clear her difficult relationship with the man. "If he had've engaged in the manner that normal colleagues would have..."

There were concerns, she said, that "he could have gone rogue..."

And a particularly scathing line (among many) about how she had the impression that Mr Bell felt "he was to be served rather than to serve..."

Occasionally, Mrs Foster would reach for an apt temperature-related idiom. "It was heated. He came into the room already angry..." about one meeting with Mr Bell.

And recalling the febrile atmosphere as the decision was taken to wind up the scheme: "Things were very hot..."

In an email to a colleague she had admitted: "I'm at the end of my tether with this individual."

Later in her testimony, that individual became Jonathan and then just Jonny. Or Jonny and his paranoia, as she termed it.

Flicking a hand dismissively, she accused him at one point of pressing "the nuclear button in a fashion that contributed to the breakdown of the Assembly".

The nuclear button referred to was Mr Bell's controversial television interview with Stephen Nolan.

Mrs Foster, it was quite clear, was not terribly impressed with the BBC's contribution to the crisis, either. Earlier she'd been asked about the date in January when she'd been made aware of the extent of the RHI scheme's multi-million pound "overspend" (of taxpayers' money, let us not forget).

We, media people, are often pilloried for overuse of the "and how did you feel at that point?" question. Mr Scoffield, needless to say, did not stoop to it.

But what must it have been like, you wonder, at that moment when you, as First Minister, suddenly realise the full extent of the monumental costs already ratcheted up - the phenomenal estimates of the future toll? How did she feel?

Yesterday, even if Mrs Foster was feeling under extreme pressure, generally, she exuded an air of calm under fire.

She raised her eyes heavenwards on a few occasions but didn't once raise her voice.

But the picture she painted of what was happening behind the scenes, both within the DUP and within the Executive, was another story. Friction, fracture, duelling Spads and clashing colleagues.

However controlled the body language, you can't talk that away.

Belfast Telegraph


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