Suzanne Breen: A tenacious performance by Arlene Foster as she attempts to save career
As Arlene Foster arrived at Parliament Buildings to give evidence to the RHI Inquiry, she knew it would be the most important eight hours of her political career.
Like Theresa May at Westminster, she is holding onto power by her fingertips. One wrong move and she could be gone.
We were led to believe that Mrs Foster’s first appearance before the inquiry in the spring was a walk in the park compared to what she would face this time round when more evidence had been amassed.
How wrong that was.
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Everything the DUP leader has done since the cash-for-ash scandal broke has been hapless. Her tone and decision-making have been disastrous.
Yesterday she was cool, calm and collected as she delivered her evidence. If she was nervous, you never would have known. Mrs Foster looked and sounded confident and composed from start to finish. She had clearly done her homework, and it showed. But she did not perhaps face the ferocious line of fire at the inquiry that we may have expected.
The exchanges between the panel or the chair and Mrs Foster were not as memorable as those when special advisers Dr Andrew Crawford and Timothy Cairns were giving evidence.
There were no headline grabbing moments. The at-times caustic nature of questioning at previous proceedings was missing. Only when Mrs Foster was asked if she should be held to the same high standards by which she judged Jonathan Bell would she have felt truly uncomfortable.
Mrs Foster said that as the Department of Trade, Enterprise and Investment Minister, Mr Bell had to expect that “the buck rests” with him. She spoke of his responsibility whether by “commission or omission”.
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Panel member Dr Keith MacLean suggested that perhaps if Mr Bell was responsible for decisions taken on his watch, the same should apply to Mrs Foster.
She came up with the phrase that she was “accountable but not responsible” for her special adviser Dr Crawford who, among other things, leaked confidential RHI documents to relatives. While her descriptions of Mr Bell were ruthlessly colourful, she didn’t manage to use the word “rogue” in connection with Dr Crawford.
The question which the DUP and its leader need to answer is why — after all that has been unearthed — this man remains employed by the party?
The bitching and back-stabbing in DUP ranks at Stormont has been thoroughly exposed at the inquiry. But really it’s a side-show. At the heart of this entire fiasco is the colossal waste of public money, not the party’s warring personalities.
Apart from Mr Bell, Mrs Foster wasn’t throwing any of her party colleagues under a bus yesterday. She defended DUP Spads robustly.
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A certain snobbery was surely on show when she remarked: “All of the special advisers that the DUP appointed were people who had third-level education and who had an ability to work within the system. I am not sure that can be said about every other special adviser.”
This inquiry is proof that having a third-level education and even the word ‘Dr’ before your name means absolutely nothing in terms of the ability to do your job. The DUP is in no position to be looking down on anybody else’s Spads.
If yesterday’s hearing is anything to go by, it may well be certain Spads whom the inquiry ultimately castigates most vociferously and not their political masters.
A bad day for Mrs Foster yesterday would have weakened her control in the DUP and made it unlikely she would ever return as First Minister. None of the Spads who have appeared before the inquiry will likely be back in position at Stormont, so any damage to them isn’t overly important.
From the DUP’s viewpoint it’s all about saving Arlene. And like Mrs May, she’s proving remarkably tenacious.