Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness battle to save face

Posted By: December 18, 2016

Sinn Féin is playing a risky game over the ‘cash for ash’ controversy

Gerry Moriarty. Irish Times. Saturday, Dec 17, 2016.

First Minister Arlene Foster has flatly rejected Martin McGuinness’s call for her to ‘stand aside’ to allow an inquiry into corruption allegations.
 Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Northern Ireland politics and Christmas crises seem to go hand in hand. And now we have another after Martin McGuinness intervened in the so-called “cash for ash” controversy by calling for Arlene Foster to stand aside.

It drew the obligatory and inevitable DUP response that Foster, who was going nowhere, took instructions from the electorate rather than Sinn Féin.

The story has shifted from an internal DUP row to an issue over political and bureaucratic incompetence regarding a £400 million overspend on a heating incentive scheme, to suggestions of political corruption, to televangelism mixed with politics, to one that once again threatens the stability of the Northern Executive and Assembly.

If the DUP and Sinn Féin can’t resolve this matter, we could have Assembly elections early in the new year.

To resolve the matter and avoid such a situation, either Foster or McGuinness has to yield and therefore lose face. And in politics, that’s not good.

Sinn Féin and McGuinness, almost certainly with Gerry Adams driving events, decided on this dangerous play.

They probably feel they have the upper hand on Foster and the DUP. They may be right but in high-stakes politics, the cards can fall in funny ways.

Independent inquiry

McGuinness called for an independent inquiry into the green energy incentive scheme and into whether Foster or Jonathan Bell is telling the truth – following Thursday night’s riveting piece of television on BBC’s Nolan Show.

Pending the outcome of such an inquiry or “at least until an initial assessment had been concluded into the veracity of all the allegations”, McGuinness wants Foster to take gardening leave, as her predecessor Peter Robinson did during the so-called Irisgate affair in 2010.

There will be a vote of no confidence in Foster on Monday but that in itself was a vote of no confidence in her by her Sinn Féin partner in government, even if the DUP responded by saying she was going nowhere.

What happens next then?

McGuinness, who is not in the best of health, could resign as Deputy First Minister prompting a re-election for both his and for the posts of First Minister and Deputy First Minister, roles that must be filled simultaneously.

If a First Minister and Deputy First Minister aren’t elected, then Assembly elections would follow.

Perhaps Sinn Féin is banking on the DUP being terrified of a poll in the wake of this fiasco.

Perhaps the DUP will be so fearful of losing seats that it will jettison Foster. An even more plausible scenario is that Foster, after calling Sinn Féin’s bluff, will galvanize the unionist electorate and not be bullied by Sinn Féin.

What Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams have done doesn’t seem wise unless Sinn Féin is playing some sort of longer term game in the hope that unionism will turn in on itself.

Our old friend (or enemy), brinkmanship, is back on the agenda.