BETWEEN THE LINES OF ARLENE FOSTER’S FIRESIDE ADDRESS

Last night Arlene Foster took to Facebook to post her reaction to the resignation of Martin McGuinness as deputy First Minister. Here are her remarks in full, interspersed with some brief analysis of my own.

I am, of course, disappointed that Martin McGuinness has chosen to take the position he has today.

She must have been as surprised as the rest of us, but certainly not shocked. She seems to have been expecting for Sinn Féin to deliver a shopping list to the DUP’s door, they would then give them concessions in order to stay in government, and somehow expect to stay on as First Minister as if nothing had happened.

His actions have meant that at precisely the time we need our government to be active, we will have no government and no obvious way to resolve the RHI problems.

Would government not have been far more stable if Foster had simply temporarily stepped aside in order to get to the bottom of this mess? Would that not have allowed us to move on, and for government to continue to govern?

On 19th December I apologised to the people of Northern Ireland for my responsibility as minister for the Renewable Heat Incentive and I do so again today. Our efforts as a party these past weeks have been to try and find a solution to the problem.

Foster takes responsibility for presiding over the scheme, but what does that mean if she has refused to seriously consider her position? The option of temporarily standing aside as First Minister was a somewhat generous offer in hindsight. Government ministers in Dublin and London have resigned over much less – and they almost never hold onto their jobs on the basis that they fix their own mess.

Others have sought to exploit it for party political reasons.

All parties have political motives – some legitimate, some not. Mrs Foster needs to recognise the difference between (wrongly) exploiting a political scandal and (rightly) exposing one. It will be up to the public to decide which party (or parties) are playing games.

I made a full statement to Stormont outlining all aspects of the scheme and answering questions, but Sinn Féin and other parties didn’t show up.

Well, that was because the First Minister made a statement to the Assembly without the consent of the deputy First Minister. If Foster were to respect the joint nature of the Office, she first needed to find a solution from her partner in government. Instead, by making the statement to an empty chamber, the First Minister undermined what little trust had existed between Sinn Féin and the DUP.

We put forward a proposal to Sinn Féin that would have ended the cost to the Northern Ireland budget, caused by the scheme, at minimum cost to taxpayers, but Sinn Féin rejected it. I want to hold an immediate inquiry into the scheme right away, but despite calling for it, Sinn Féin won’t let me.

The proposal was announced via the media, apparently without the knowledge of Sinn Féin’s Finance Minister, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir. Legal experts, meanwhile, have dispute whether or not it would be workable to tear up or amend contracts that have already been signed between the government and RHI beneficiaries.

And it’s clear that Sinn Féin’s actions are not principled; they are political. And rather than seek to resolve this issue, Sinn Féin would rather take the people of Northern Ireland through the uncertainty of yet another election less than twelve months after the last one.

There may indeed be a political element to Sinn Féin’s calculations, but what if it didn’t act? What if Martin McGuinness remained as deputy First Minister, having called for Arlene Foster to step aside before Christmas or face ‘grave consequences’? If Arlene Foster wanted to avoid the uncertainty of an election, she had a choice.

At a time when we are dealing with Brexit, needing to create more jobs and investing in our health and education system, Northern Ireland needs stability. But because of Sinn Féin’s selfish actions, we now have instability, and I very much regret that.

She’s spot on about the problems facing Northern Ireland: we face a vacuum when we need certainty on multiple fronts, particularly over Brexit. The accusation of selfishness is, however, all too ironic. The DUP has been pushing the spirit of the institutions to breaking point over recent months; it shouldn’t be surprised when they finally break.

Of course, if we have to fight an election we will do it in the best interests of Northern Ireland, but it will not solve any of the problems that currently face us. This is not an election of our making. But let me make it clear. The DUP will always defend unionism and stand up for what is best for Northern Ireland.

The election stall is already being set. Last time around, it was ‘Keep Arlene First Minister’. It seems unthinkable that the DUP will run that kind of personality-centric campaign after all that has happened. Instead, it seems like the party is getting ready to fire up a more familiar siren: ‘Stop Sinn Féin from becoming First Minister’.

And, it appears from the deputy First Minister’s resignation letter, that is what annoys Sinn Féin the most. At this time we need strong leadership to put us in the best post-Brexit position and to continue to create more jobs. Northern Ireland does not need an election, but solutions. The DUP will continue to look for those solutions and work for a stronger, better Northern Ireland.

We certainly do need strong leadership. Unfortunately, the DUP seems to have understood strength as arrogance. Arlene Foster was never the sole leader of Northern Ireland; she was its joint leader. This particular crisis may initially have been instigated by a policy failure over RHI, but the much more fundamental issue behind how the crisis has unfolded was the failure of the DUP to find workable solutions with its partner in government. The DUP never held power outright; it shared it, as we have all been so abruptly reminded.

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