Arlene Foster has gone low in her response to RHI criticism

Posted By: January 09, 2017

First Minister Arlene Foster. Picture by Niall Carson, Press Association

Claire Simpson. Irish News. Belfast. Monday, January 9, 2017

ONE of the best presents I received over Christmas was a copy of US writer Flannery O’Connor’s book of essays, Mystery, and Manners.

In a piece about the short story, O’Connor writes of how she lent some stories to a “country lady who lives down the road from me, and when she returned them, she said, ‘Well, them stories just gone and shown you how some folks would do.'”

O’Connor writes that stories show us what “specific folks will do, will do in spite of everything.” Over the last few weeks these lines keep coming to mind, often with the accompanying question – what will folks do in spite of everything?

When it comes to money, people are more inclined to spend when it’s not their own, and there are no apparent consequences. Under the disastrous renewable heat incentive (RHI) up to £490 million of taxpayers’ money could be squandered by allowing claimants to work the scheme for profit. People effectively earned and continued to earn money by burning more fuel than they need. And why wouldn’t they, when the regulations allowed them to? Folks will do, after all.

O’Connor seemed to say that people can’t help but reveal their personalities, particularly when they’re under pressure or in times of trouble. Arlene Foster, a person under more pressure than most at the moment, has come under more fire after she claimed that repeated calls for her to stand down over the RHI scandal are misogynistic.

“There’s a lot of it personal. There’s a lot of it, sadly, misogynistic as well, because I’m a female, the first female leader of Northern Ireland,” she told Sky News.

When her party colleague Jonathan Bell urged her to stand aside and apologize over the RHI scandal, Mrs. Foster suggested some of his criticism was linked to her gender. She accused him of “using his bulk” to intimidate her – a quote that overshadowed that the fact that she did apologize for not building cost controls into the scheme.

There is no doubt the DUP leader has borne the brunt of some deeply unpleasant comments on social media. There is also no denying that misogyny is rife within her own party.

When Mrs. Foster became The North’s female first minister her own colleague Edwin Poots – a man whose views are stuck firmly in the Triassic period whether he believes dinosaurs actually existed or not – said her “most important job” remained “that of a wife, mother, and daughter.” As it turns out Mrs. Foster’s most important job isn’t related to her marital status but how she can possibly claw back a £490 million overspend that began under her watch.

Yet her remarks about misogyny were less disturbing than comments she made about her partners in government.

“It’s no secret that during my childhood, the IRA tried to murder my father. It’s no secret that in the past, the IRA put a bomb on my school bus. So do I really think that I’m going to step aside at the behest of Sinn Féin? No, I’m not,” she said.

Mrs. Foster, like thousands of families in The North, was directly affected the Troubles. No one would wish to diminish how difficult those experiences must have been. Yet bringing them up when she’s under extreme pressure to explain a financial scandal does beg the question – if she finds Sinn Féin so repellent why is she in government with them?

Mrs. Foster complained that attacks on her are personal, and they may be. Disgruntled DUP members Bell and former MLA David McIlveen were always more aligned to the hell fire and

Brimstone wing of the party. But the difficult thing is that Mrs. Foster has had several opportunities to retain some high ground – and in every case, she has chosen to take attacks on her authority personally. Worse, she has reverted to the type of old DUP rhetoric that even the late Ian Paisley seemed embarrassed by in his later years.

There was no need to refer to IRA attacks on her school bus or her father. Showing her distaste for Sinn Féin will hardly help taxpayers when both parties need to work together to agree on a solution to the crisis.

When Hillary Clinton had to face appalling comments by Donald Trump, she borrowed Michelle Obama’s call: “When they go low, we go high.”

But instead of trying to stick to the high ground Mrs. Foster went low. She let down the electorate and worse, she forgot that when money and power are concerned, it can’t be personal, it’s just politics.