In the hot seat: Has Arlene Foster's grilling at RHI Inquiry affected her future as DUP leader?
Former First Minister Arlene Foster had an uncomfortable week giving evidence to the RHI inquiry, but while expressing ‘huge regret’ at the scandal, her position as DUP leader remains secure — for now at least, reports Laurence White.
Sir Patrick Coghlin’s eyebrows have been shooting up and down like the venetian blinds in the home of the world’s nosiest neighbour. It is evident that he is as astonished as the rest of us at how the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment went about introducing the controversial Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.
The evidence given to the RHI inquiry by former First Minister Arlene Foster, who signed off the scheme when minister at the department, and by her former special adviser, Dr Andrew Crawford, certainly gave Sir Patrick, the chair of the inquiry, plenty of reason to look quizzical.
Dr Crawford, whose job attracted a salary of £84,000 a year, admitted to the investigation that he had passed on to his cousin two emails — in 2013 and 2015 — containing internal departmental information about the scheme.
The cousin, a poultry farmer, has six biomass boilers linked to the scheme, although Dr Crawford said his cousin had not gained an advantage from his actions.
He admitted that, with hindsight, he should have dug deeper to familiarise himself with the details of the scheme as it was being introduced, which prompted Sir Patrick to comment that the more Dr Crawford stressed that he had no knowledge or expertise of the renewable heat industry, the more common sense dictated that he should have read an expert’s report on it.
Dr Crawford said he didn’t believe any special adviser in any department could be expected to be over the detail of all submissions.
This was a line of defence similar to that taken later by his former boss, Arlene Foster.
Common throughout her evidence was the phrase “with hindsight”, but it seems that there was a remarkable lack of foresight in the department during the introduction of RHI.
As a professional, high-profile politician — one, indeed, with the ear of the Prime Minister, Theresa May — Mrs Foster is well used to dealing with questioning from political journalists, but Sir Patrick and his colleagues on the inquiry were inquisitors of a different order.
The former First Minister said the first she knew about Dr Crawford sending internal departmental information to his cousin was when that evidence was given to the inquiry. “I certainly didn’t have any knowledge of it at the time,” she said.
“I do acknowledge that Andrew has accepted it was the wrong thing to do.
“It was inappropriate and he has apologised, and I recognise that. It is quite clearly something that he should not have been engaged in at that time or, indeed, at any time.”
She said, if she had been told at the time, she would have referred Dr Crawford to the department’s then-permanent secretary (now head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service), David Sterling, and then on to party officers.
She added Dr Crawford now worked part-time for the party as a researcher for MEP Diane Dodds, prompting David Scoffield, senior counsel to the inquiry, to wonder if that showed that the party did not take his actions seriously.
Mrs Foster replied: “I think, given everything that happened in late-2016, early-2017 — and I hear very clearly what you are asking me around the emails and that was inappropriate, it was disappointing from my point of view — but I don’t think that should bar a person from having part-time research employment for ever and a day. I am quite sure he has learnt his lesson in relation to that.”
Like Dr Crawford, she admitted that, with hindsight, she wished she had asked more questions about the scheme.
But it was her admission that the initiative, although a new policy for the department, was not a priority for her within the department.
Mrs Foster had previously mentioned an upcoming visit by Queen and a big golf tournament as competing priorities.
She also had a “false sense of security” that, since the scheme was working in Britain, it was, therefore, coming to Northern Ireland.
Mrs Foster denied a suggestion by Mr Scoffield that cynical members of the public might think she did not introduce cost controls because the scheme benefited DUP voters. “I don’t accept that at all,” she said. “I think, if you look at the recipients of the RHI scheme, they are wide and varied and across all communities in Northern Ireland. They are certainly not just restricted to supporters of the Democratic Unionist Party.”
She also rubbished a suggestion that, given her party’s links to the farming community, many people would find it impossible to believe she had not picked up rumblings that the scheme was too good to be true.
“I certainly didn’t pick up anything of that nature,” Mrs Foster insisted. “If I had, I would have raised it, not only with my special adviser, but with my officials.
“Why in Heaven’s name would I want to be associated with a scheme that was overcompensating and doing what we now know it was doing? It is not something I would have wanted to be associated with, I can assure you.
“I have a record in government of trying to deliver, but not to do so in a way that this scheme worked out, and, of course, this scheme is a huge regret for me in my political life.”
For Professor Jon Tonge, from Liverpool University, who has written a book about the DUP and is a long-time observer of the party, the past couple of weeks have been a very uncomfortable time for Mrs Foster.
“There is an old convention in government that ministers are responsible for everything that happens in their departments, but even senior civil servants admit this is a bit unfair,” he said.
“In this case, it could be argued the failings of the civil servants in the department at that time were as great, if not greater, than those of the minister.”
Certainly, the evidence given by Mrs Foster and Dr Crawford suggested that officials did not raise enough red flags to cause concern.
The former First Minister said: “I read the information given to me. I took the information at face value.”
With hindsight — that word again — she believed she should have received more information, and at the time she did not think she was signing a blank cheque.
She admitted she did not read some technical information associated with the scheme, but it was up to others to raise issues raised by that in their submissions to her. She had no explanation as to why that was not done.
According to Professor Tonge, the evidence given to the inquiry recently brings to mind how a senior civil servant once described Tony Blair’s style as “sofa government” — lack of formal minute-taking, lack of formal questioning of issues and too much casualness. “We have got a whiff of that this week,” he added.
He said the evidence might make Sinn Fein feel vindicated in staying out of government while there are still question marks over the First Minister. “They may feel, why should they go back before they see how this pans out.”
But he said the minister was entitled to rely on the wisdom and knowledge of her civil servants and “clearly she was not getting that”.
However, he agreed that the waters are still muddy, as it seemed to take a long time for Mrs Foster to get to grips with the problems. One muddy issue is how the convention of not taking notes at meetings between civil servants and ministers and advisers came about.
David Sterling had earlier told the inquiry that the DUP and Sinn Fein were sensitive to criticism and it was felt best not to take notes in case they were later requested under Freedom of Information legislation.
Mrs Foster stressed: “I never gave a direction not to take minutes because of FoI, or because I did not want anyone to see what was happening in my department.”
She added: “I don’t think there are any politicians that are not sensitive to criticism. Given what I came through last year, I think I am probably tougher than most. All politicians know they are going to be criticised on a day and daily basis.
“None of us took decisions to avoid criticism.
“Politics is not just about getting elected, it is about doing something with your mandate and to deliver on what you want to deliver on.”
While Mrs Foster, at times, cut an uncomfortable figure at the inquiry, Professor Tonge believes her position as leader of the DUP is unchallenged.
“It would have to be a witheringly damning verdict in the report from this inquiry to change that position. Then, even the DUP’s internal loyalty would dissipate.
“But, for now, she is unchallenged. Firstly, it would be premature to do anything and, secondly, there is no obviously successor.
“However, she is in a strange position. Nigel Dodds is de facto leader, because power now lies in London, not Belfast. The DUP’s 10 MPs will have key roles to play in the coming months over Brexit.
“In a way, Arlene’s role is to turn up and watch proceedings from the visitors’ gallery in the House of Commons.”
It would be a more relaxing seat than the one she has been occupying this week.
Independent News Service