Brian Feeney: Arlene Foster wounded but no fatal blow

Posted By: December 17, 2016

Brian Feeney

Brian Feeney. Irish News.(Belfast). December 17, 2016

First Minister Arlene Foster and Strangford MLA Jonathan Bell have given contrasting versions of events in relation to a February meeting about the Renewable Heating Incentive

“We must. Indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” So Benjamin Franklin told the Continental Congress in 1776. It’s advice the DUP decided to follow as the party leader, and close cronies came under heavy fire from the BBC and political opponents.

After a couple of weeks of fusillades following a BBC Spotlight investigation into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, Jonathan Bell broke ranks or stepped ‘out of the party line’ as Arlene Foster put it, on Wednesday night and went public on Thursday. A DUP statement at Wednesday lunchtime seems to have spooked him. It was clear in that statement with its concentration on the period September to November 2015 that the party was going to throw Bell under a bus to save Arlene Foster’s skin. Bell decided to jump before he was pushed. Before he jumped, he got his retaliation in first – and how!

We’re witnessing an intra-Unionist knife fight, and in a knife fight, there are no rules. Sinn Féin initially decided to enjoy the lunges and slashes from a safe distance, knowing that offering any criticism, especially kicking Arlene Foster when she’s reeling, would cause DUP ranks to close instantly. However, as pressure grew yesterday, Sinn Féin had to say something.

The SDLP and UUP were less circumspect. They have been unable to conceal their glee. They smell blood, but Foster is only wounded. No fatal blow has been landed. Nesbitt suggested Foster should resign. That’s just silly. She won’t. Then he tried to suggest that asking her to ‘consider her position’ doesn’t mean she should resign. Weak. Directionless.

The SDLP rushed to a vote of no confidence, demanded Foster stand aside for six months. Too impetuous. A sign of inexperience. Certain to fail. Such demands are guaranteed to bring maximum DUP support behind Foster. Those types of motions don’t split a party or isolate a leader. They produce the opposite reaction. Furthermore, you don’t propose them unless you know you’re going to succeed, and they can’t. The DUP has enough unionist votes to defeat any motion requiring cross-community support.

Who to believe between Foster and Bell in interviews which contradicted each other directly and both of which were internally contradictory? One conclusion is certain: the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) with its record of total failure to bring ministers to book will not find the

answer. The fundamental question is, do MLAs want the truth or do they want to bring Arlene Foster down? If they go for the latter, they’ll fail. They don’t have the numbers or the fire power. The PAC with a DUP/SF majority will frustrate any effort to force Foster out.

One central answer they could find quickly is this. Jonathan Bell says his deputy permanent secretary Chris Stewart got a one-to-one meeting with him to warn him special advisers (Spads) of other ministers were intriguing behind his back to prevent him closing down the RHI scheme. Bell said Stewart told him he’s prepared to go on the record about this warning. That assertion can be quickly checked. If the deputy permanent secretary verifies Bell’s assertion then the most of rest of Bell’s story about the Spad conspiracy against him stands up. If it Stewart denies it, Bell is sunk.

Bell’s nauseating sanctimonious histrionics didn’t endear himself to Nationalist viewers but then his performance was exclusively a maneuver in the Unionist knife fight. Invoking Paisley, a notorious inventor of dangerous myths as a paragon of truth, was particularly amusing and predisposed Nationalist viewers to reject Bell’s pleading.

On the other hand, Arlene Foster going for the man and not the ball demeaned her. It distracted from the main issue of who is responsible for the whole £400 million debacle. Assuring viewers that she will be able to recoup ‘about half’ is hardly encouraging. That still leaves the gigantic sum of £200 million down the Swanee.

Only a full public inquiry with all papers available would reveal the truth but that’s not going to happen. It’s Stormont.