Profile: Arlene Foster, the DUP leader whose dreams have turned to ashes

Posted By: January 22, 2017

The Sunday Herald.Glasgow. Sunday, January 22, 2017

In January last year, Arlene Foster made her maiden speech as Northern Ireland’s First Minister. She noted with some pride that she was not only the first woman to ever hold the post but also that she was the youngest-ever incumbent.

“As a young girl growing up in rural Fermanagh, the most westerly constituency in the whole of the United Kingdom, in the days when we were plagued by terrorism, and decisions affecting our fates and our futures were taken far away,” the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader said, “I could not have dreamt that I would be in this position today. Is it any wonder that in politics I believe nothing is impossible?”

The real measure of success, she continued, would be how the post enabled her to help others to realize their dreams, ambitions, and aspirations.

But that was then, and this is now. The Northern Ireland Executive has collapsed, caught up in a “cash for ash” green-energy scandal that could cost taxpayers as much as £500 million. Fresh elections will take place on March 2, just ten months after the last election.

Foster survived a no-confidence motion in the Assembly last month, but her problems were only just beginning.

One leading commentator, Suzanne Breen, wrote in last Saturday’s Belfast Telegraph that Foster stands “as the most ridiculed political leader in Northern Ireland’s history.

“Since the ‘cash for ash’ scandal broke, she has come across as all those things we believed she was not – arrogant, out of touch, and contemptuous of public opinion.”

Breen added: “Mrs. Foster, who has never fired a shot or planted a bomb, has bizarrely managed to make Martin McGuinness, the man once dubbed the Butcher of Bogside, seem reasonable and statesmanlike to many outside Sinn Fein.”

Breen also referred to the FM’s alleged “haughtiness” and strategic errors. The headline: “Arlene Foster’s tarnished image could see DUP battered at the polling booths.”

How did it come to this?

In 2012 Foster, while Enterprise Minister, set up the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI). Ministers were keen to encourage moves that would see four per cent of heat deriving from renewables[renewable sources] by 2015. Financial incentives were offered so that businesses and other non-domestic users could install renewable heat systems on their premises.

However, flaws in setting the scheme’s subsidy rate left it open to abuse as claimants could earn more cash the more fuel they burned, with the overspend estimated to be almost half-a-billion pounds.

A whistleblower alleged the scheme was being abused and an official investigation was launched last February as the scheme’s domestic and non-domestic initiatives were shut down owing to what was described as “the significant financial risk to the Northern Ireland block grant for the next 20 years”. Last July, an audit office report spoke of widespread abuse of the scheme.

On January 10, with Foster declining to stand aside to facilitate a full investigation into RHI, McGuinness quit as Sinn Féin’s Deputy First Minister. In his resignation letter, he said the DUP’s handling of the issue had been “completely out of step with a public mood which is rightly outraged at the squandering of public money and the allegations of misconduct and corruption.

“The public are demanding robust action and accountability but the DUP, in particular … Arlene Foster, have refused to accept this.” Charging that Foster had a conflict of interest, he added: “No cost controls were put in place and warnings were ignored. This has led to enormously damaging pressure on public finances and a crisis of confidence in the political institutions.

Sinn Féin refused to nominate a replacement for him and the Executive thus fell, paving the way for snap elections. McGuinness, 66, has now ended his political career as he fights a serious illness.

Foster has acknowledged that “shocking errors and failures” in RHI, and a catalog of mistakes, had coincided to create “the perfect storm.”

McGuinness’s decision to quit as deputy FM, she also said, means that when people needed their government to be active, “we will have no government and no way to resolve the RHI problems. It is clear that Sinn Fein’s actions are not principled, they are political”.

She has asserted that a lot of the calls for her to stand aside were “sadly, misogynistic as well because I’m a female, the first female leader of Northern Ireland.” She argues there is not a “scintilla of evidence of wrongdoing against me” but says the DUP supports an independent investigation into RHI.

Former Northern Ireland secretary of state Peter Hain, while acknowledging last week that Foster has “a great deal of ability,” described her handling of the scandal as a “textbook case” of how a crisis should not be managed.

Suzanne Breen told the Sunday Herald on Friday: “Arlene’s response to the scandal has been shaped by the desire to be seen, first and foremost, as a strong Unionist leader who is unbending even under massive pressure.

“Except that is not what the public wanted when £500 million of taxpayers’ money is heading down the drain. They wanted a leader who would say sorry and actually look like she was remorseful. Such was the goodwill towards Arlene when she was elected DUP leader that the vast majority of ordinary Unionists would have forgiven her had she taken that stance.

“Instead, she has been her own worst enemy. Her default position is to defend herself by attacking others. And she has combined the Margaret Thatcher strong-woman approach with a bizarre attempt at also playing the victim – citing misogyny without justification, etc. It has all been disastrous. She had the unionist world at her feet a year ago. She will be lucky to survive as DUP leader after this election.”