When the going gets tough, Arlene Foster gets tougher

Posted By: December 25, 2016

The North’s first minister is a bullish woman in a system that rewards stubbornness – so don’t bet against her, writes Eilis O’Hanlon
Eilis O’Hanlon. Irish Independent. Sunday, December 25, 2016

Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster.
 Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Peace was supposed to bring the Irish people closer together. One effect of the end of the Troubles has, however, been a widening divide between North and South, not in terms of rancour, but simply of ignorance.
Southern voters idolized John Hume, but what do they really know of current SDLP leader Colum Eastwood? It’s no exaggeration to say that most people south of the Border would struggle to pick him out in an identity parade.

Right now, the Republic is also getting a lightning-fast introduction to First Minister Arlene Foster, who’s been in the job for less than a year, though it seems much longer.

There’s already been one Assembly election under her watch, and at least two major scandals which may or may not turn out to be as serious as the more lurid allegations suggest – the first involving the sale of Nama’s Project Eagle assets in Belfast, about which certain allegations have been made, if not yet proven; and the second, which has blown up in recent weeks, over the so- called Renewable Heating Initiative, which offered incentives to recipients to switch from carbon-based energy to more environmentally friendly wood-chip burners.

Unlike in the rest of the UK, there was no cap put on the amount of money which those signing up to the scheme could take out of it (the culprit seems to be a consultant report which was adopted with too few checks and balances), meaning obscene amounts could be raked in by the lucky few well in excess of any benefits to the environment.

One farmer is said to be in line for £1m for heating an empty shed. In total, the scheme could cost £400m.

Arlene Foster is at the centre of the row because she was the then minister for enterprise, trade and development who signed off on the deal, and also because of how she dealt with the issue when problems in the scheme were raised by a whistleblower.

She said she passed all concerns to officials in the proper manner, but is refusing calls from opposition parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly to step aside while a judge oversees an independent investigation into the whole scheme, including her role.

Last week, things came to a head with an extraordinary sitting of the Assembly, at which the SDLP submitted a motion to remove her as first minister. She lost the vote, but it didn’t matter, because it needed both nationalist and unionist support, and naturally her own party backed her.

Her performance in that debate was classic Arlene Foster. Bullish, pugnacious, combative – she came out with all guns blazing, and it may have been a shock to many of those new to Stormont proceedings that she was not more willing to compromise in the interests of cross community harmony.

But the entire row had been magnified from the start into a clash of extremes, with her opponents lightly tossing words such as “corruption” and “cronyism” around the chamber without actually producing much evidence that the words were the right ones to describe a situation which looks more like typical government incompetence rather than an existential threat to the integrity of the devolved institutions themselves.

Those backing Arlene Foster into a corner could scarcely have been astonished that she fought like a trapped polecat.

That’s what she does. It’s what won her the DUP leadership, and it was probably less objectionable than the strange new Arlene who played the female card when appearing on TV the week before to answer accusations from former colleague Jonathan Bell that two DUP advisers, one in her department at the time, lobbied for the scheme to stay open even after the overspend was uncovered. (The two officials strongly deny these accusations.)

It’s a sign of the pressure she’s under that she ever tried to paint such an implausibly timid picture of her relationship with male colleagues. Many descriptions could be applied to Arlene, but “shrinking violets” isn’t one of them.

Arlene was at home as a child when the IRA came to murder her RUC constable father. Mercifully, they failed. As a school girl, she was also on a bus when the IRA blew it up in a bid to kill the driver. Growing up along the Border in the 1970s and 1980s was no picnic. No wonder few bought the little woman act.

Foster was part of a group of Ulster unionists who made life difficult for David Trimble when he was trying to make the Belfast Agreement work.

She jumped ship for Ian Paisley’s DUP as it was growing in strength. Once the Paisleyites became the dominant force, they quickly came round to the idea that power sharing might not be such a bad thing.

Nonetheless, she retains the ‘No Surrender’ spirit. Like many unionists, she lives on an island. Or an island on an island. The siege mentality is hard to shake. It’s there in her response to the RHI scandal too. The one consistent imperative for unionists is to endure under enemy fire.

Three years after joining the DUP, Foster took up her first major job in government. She has not been out of ministerial office since.

She insists she has done nothing wrong, and while Sinn Fein has pledged to put down its own motion to resolve the issue, their weakness is being exposed right now. They were tight-lipped when a row erupted over millions of pounds of EU peace money going to groups linked to former loyalist paramilitaries.

Last week, despite a few theatrical murmurs of discontent, it did not escape notice that, when push came to shove, they further dodged the chance to put Foster’s feet to the (wood-chip fuelled) fire over this ludicrously exorbitant heating scheme.

In the scornful words of one SDLP Assembly member on Twitter on the day, SF “fled” when it came to a vote.

Arlene Foster has treated her Irish republican colleagues with barely concealed contempt over this issue, and does looks gravely damaged; but this is Northern Ireland where looks can be deceptive.

Having raised the stakes so high, only to have their efforts to dislodge her slapped down, it is Arlene Foster’s critics who now have to ponder their next move. It’s hard to know what credible alternative they have other than either proving that she is guilty as charged by them, or else to back down, having overplayed their hand.

The first minister is a hard woman to bully, and the Northern Irish political system is weighted to reward stubbornness. Her enemies took a shot. They missed. What will they do now?