Claims require investigation

Posted By: December 17, 2016

Irish News (Belfast). Editorial.Saturday 17 December 2016

On these pages yesterday, Irish News columnist Alex Kane wrote about the ugly face of what passes for normal politics in Northern Ireland.

The viewing public who watched Stephen Nolan’s interviews with Jonathan Bell and Arlene Foster on Thursday night will have seen for themselves not just the ugliness of our political system but the sort of vitriolic, back-stabbing, deeply personal nastiness taking place within the ranks of the biggest party in the north.

The Renewable Heating Incentive saga has taken a number of twists in recent weeks, but few could have predicted that a former DUP minister would break ranks and point the finger of blame at his leader and first minister.

After Mr. Bell’s emotional interview setting out his version of events, Mrs. Foster then hit back in terms that left people in no doubt that she was determined to fight for her position and would use whatever means she considered necessary.

Thus we had her firm rebuttal of Mr. Bell’s allegations in relation to the RHI scheme, but she went much further, engaging in what Jim Allister described as “character assassination” of her party and assembly colleague.

It was a particularly unedifying aspect of the entire, quite remarkable, interview during which Mrs. Foster looked distinctly uncomfortable.

Aside from the jaw-dropping sight of two senior DUP figures tearing lumps out of each other on late night television, Mr. Bell’s claims are significant and need further investigation.

At the very least, the emails, notes, letters and other documents relating to this botched scheme need to be put into the public domain.

Mr. Bell also made serious allegations about the role of special advisers who worked for Peter Robinson and Mrs. Foster.

This is another aspect of the entire affair which is frankly disturbing and if nothing else there needs to be a root and branch review of how these key officials are appointed and operate.

Special advisers hold central positions in government but are not elected, or selected by an open recruitment process. They are there to provide advice, but the suggestion is they wield considerable influence in the Stormont system, particularly those working for the DUP.

Questions also need to be asked about the number of special advisers. Stormont has 16 in total while the Welsh Assembly, dealing with a larger population, has just eight.

Why do we need too many highly paid special advisers and what exactly is their role in the day to day running of government?

There is no doubt the DUP – and Arlene Foster in particular – are damaged by the unraveling RHI scandal.

The opposition parties will seek to exploit this weakness and such is the nature of politics.

As partners in government, Sinn Féin’s position is different and in that context Martin McGuinness’s intervention yesterday, calling for Mrs. Foster to step aside while an investigation takes place, has to be seen as a significant development with major implications for the executive.