The smoldering scandal that blew up and burned the DUP
Posted By: February 24, 2017
John Manley. Thursday, February 23, 2017
It’s roughly a year since the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) was closed down amid concern that it was set to burn a huge hole in the Stormont executive’s budget for the next 20 years.
We didn’t hear much about it in the subsequent months – a damning Audit Office report released last July that highlighted potential abuses and the scheme’s popularity among poultry farmers gained only cursory media coverage.
Even when the assembly’s public accounts committee began scrutinizing the scheme’s failings last September nobody thought to make the link between the former minister for enterprise, trade, and investment, who oversaw the RHI’s design and rollout from 2012 onwards.
Indeed, an unwritten convention meant Stormont’s public spending watchdog couldn’t even quiz Arlene Foster about her part in what one committee member described as “the biggest financial scandal in the history of devolution”.
However, media scrutiny ignited the smoldering scandal, prompting an unprecedented frenzy of public interest. Only in recent days, with a devolved administration brought down, several DUP spads out of a job and an election in the offing, has coverage subsided.
Mrs. Foster must now regret her initial failure to accept responsibility for the scheme’s shortcomings. Rather than scapegoat her officials she should have been contrite and acknowledged that things could have been done better. Instead, she remained adamant, arrogant even, about her role in the scandal.
That attitude may well cost the DUP leader her once-promising political career.
If her party fails to emerge from next week’s election in a position of dominance it won’t take long for a leadership challenge to materialize. Mrs. Foster may well be expected to fall on her sword but judging by her past record, that seems unlikely.
There is some dispute over what caused the coming election but we can rest assured that whatever Sinn Féin’s strategic motivations, RHI created the opportunity and the ammunition for Republicans to wound their former executive partner.
Potentially, next week’s poll may signal a seismic shift in regional politics if traditional DUP voters dessert the scandal-smeared party in significant numbers. If that scenario does transpire and the snap election proves to be a watershed for Northern Ireland politics, historians will trace its source not to Gerry Adams’s scheming but to Arlene Foster, the botched RHI and media which won’t take no for an answer.