Getty
Show Hide image

Arlene Foster has led Northern Ireland into crisis - and Westminster is strangely quiet

The Democratic Unionist Party's scandal could prove embarrassing for a UK government in need of parliamentary votes. 

Arlene Foster was set to chalk up her first 12 months in charge of Northern Ireland today but that milestone has now been cut short by her own appalling hubris.

For the uninitiated, the First Minister introduced a renewable energy subsidy in 2012 that was so botched it is predicted to saddle Northern Ireland with a £500m liability.

The failure to establish cost controls in the Renewable Heating Incentive programme – a grant for businesses and farmers switching to wood pellet-burning boilers – which Foster introduced in her previous role as enterprise minister – should be a clear-cut resignation issue.

But Foster thinks she is subject to a higher burden of proof.

So instead of contrition, she is a picture of snarling defiance, refusing to step aside while an independent investigation takes place into the scandal.

And, so, there was a grim inevitability about Martin McGuinness’s resignation as deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland this week, precipitating, as it does under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, fresh elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Theoretically, there is a seven-day cooling off period. But the mood is sour. Elections are priced-in.

Although Sinn Féin had absolutely no interest in trying to oust her, preferring to keep Northern Ireland’s show on the road if at all possible, Foster’s unbearable arrogance in recent weeks simply made matters untenable.

In essence, McGuinness fell on Foster’s sword for her in order to bring this issue to a head. The situation had become a parody of democratic accountability and someone had to insert some dignity back into proceedings.

So now the Democratic Unionist Party will be left explaining this mess to voters on the doorstep. With Foster’s plunging approval ratings, their candidates may end up wishing they had sacrificed her for their own self-preservation.

Indeed, the smart move would have seen the "men in grey suits" pay her a visit and urge her step down when this scandal broke before Christmas, in order to avert fresh elections and prevent any further damage to power-sharing.

At the heart of it, though, this is merely a case of her garden-variety ministerial incompetence, assiduously reported by Northern Ireland’s excellent local media.

Alas, Whitehall has not been as on the ball these past few weeks.

Before he issued a short statement on Monday night promising to do "all that we can to help the parties find a resolution in the coming days", Northern Ireland Secretary, James Brokenshire’s last public utterance was on December 15 and he appears to have made no public intervention to avert this slow motion pile-up.

Yesterday, he told the House of Commons that he backed calls for a "comprehensive, transparent and impartial inquiry". If made last week, his intervention could have perhaps tipped the balance back towards political reason.

Last night, however, the leader of the cross-community Alliance Party, Naomi Long, suggested Westminster game-playing might lie behind the government’s lethargic response.

"There is a growing perception in Northern Ireland that the potential usefulness of DUP votes in Westminster to advance Brexit may be compromising the UK government’s willingness to challenge the DUP and ability to act as honest broker and impartial guardians of the Good Friday Agreement," she claimed to The Independent.

She also confirmed that she had written to Theresa May twice over the past month, warning about the potential collapse of the executive. To no avail.

Apart from the eye-watering amounts of public money that have been squandered, this mess is also significant because it exposes the basic lack of trust and mutual respect at the heart of devolution in Northern Ireland.

The price of power-sharing between parties that have such diametrically-opposed beliefs is that the executive operates in silos, so the scale of the mess surrounding the RHI scheme didn’t come to light earlier.

But that is now academic. Tempers are raised on all sides, with Sinn Féin mightily aggrieved by Foster’s sheer pig-headedness, while the DUP are busy circling their wagons in response to criticism. It may be harder to put all this back together than it seems.

There are also a series of notable ironies.

It was Foster’s successor as enterprise minister, her DUP colleague Jonathan Bell, who blew the whistle on the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal, claiming that although his political career would be ‘finished’ as a result, ‘God doesn’t punish people who tell the truth’.

The row also pits Sinn Féin as custodians of the British public purse while the DUP’s basic lack of financial rectitude, while playing fast and loose with the rules, is more reminiscent of a southern Irish political scandal.

As for Foster, she managed to heap schaudenfraude onto hubris in her response to McGuinness’s resignation, claiming that it prevented swift action being taken to tackle the RHI mess.

‘His actions [McGuinness] have meant that, at precisely the time we need our Government to be active, we will have no government and no way to resolve the RHI problems,’ she actually had the chutzpah to claim.

At any other time, these elections might have been a useful proxy to gauge reaction to Brexit, but this is now a referendum on Arlene Foster. Watch to see if the Ulster Unionists and Traditional Unionist Voice now benefit at the DUP’s expense in the various intra-unionist electoral battles.

Lastly, there was a valedictory tone to Martin McGuinness’s resignation letter.

It is on the record that he is receiving medical treatment for a, as yet, unconfirmed illness. It is far from clear at this stage whether he is coming back to the frontline.

This should give pause for thought given his presence in the power-sharing executive has been pivotal for the past decade. His letter said, with a hint of regret, that he had always "sought to maximise the potential of the institutions for forward progress in a society emerging from bitter conflict".

The bottom line is this mess was utterly avoidable. Amid the confusion and uncertainty about what happens next, one thing is clear. Voters should hold Arlene Isabel Foster to account for her willingness to lay down Northern Ireland’s assembly for her own political life.

Kevin Meagher was former special adviser to the last Labour Government’s Northern Ireland Secretary, Shaun Woodward and author of ‘A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about,’ published by Biteback.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

Getty
Show Hide image

How the Lib Dems learned to love all-women shortlists

Yes, the sitting Lib Dem MPs are mostly white, middle-aged middle class men. But the party's not taking any chances. 

I can’t tell you who’ll be the Lib Dem candidate in Southport on 8 June, but I do know one thing about them. As they’re replacing a sitting Lib Dem (John Pugh is retiring) - they’ll be female.

The same is true in many of our top 20 target seats, including places like Lewes (Kelly-Marie Blundell), Yeovil (Daisy Benson), Thornbury and Yate (Clare Young), and Sutton and Cheam (Amna Ahmad). There was air punching in Lib Dem offices all over the country on Tuesday when it was announced Jo Swinson was standing again in East Dunbartonshire.

And while every current Lib Dem constituency MP will get showered with love and attention in the campaign, one will get rather more attention than most - it’s no coincidence that Tim Farron’s first stop of the campaign was in Richmond Park, standing side by side with Sarah Olney.

How so?

Because the party membership took a long look at itself after the 2015 election - and a rather longer look at the eight white, middle-aged middle class men (sorry chaps) who now formed the Parliamentary party and said - "we’ve really got to sort this out".

And so after decades of prevarication, we put a policy in place to deliberately increase the diversity of candidates.

Quietly, over the last two years, the Liberal Democrats have been putting candidates into place in key target constituencies . There were more than 300 in total before this week’s general election call, and many of them have been there for a year or more. And they’ve been selected under new procedures adopted at Lib Dem Spring Conference in 2016, designed to deliberately promote the diversity of candidates in winnable seats

This includes mandating all-women shortlists when selecting candidates who are replacing sitting MPs, similar rules in our strongest electoral regions. In our top 10 per cent of constituencies, there is a requirement that at least two candidates are shortlisted from underrepresented groups on every list. We became the first party to reserve spaces on the shortlists of winnable seats for underrepresented candidates including women, BAME, LGBT+ and disabled candidates

It’s not going to be perfect - the hugely welcome return of Lib Dem grandees like Vince Cable, Ed Davey and Julian Huppert to their old stomping grounds will strengthen the party but not our gender imbalance. But excluding those former MPs coming back to the fray, every top 20 target constituency bar one has to date selected a female candidate.

Equality (together with liberty and community) is one of the three key values framed in the preamble to the Lib Dem constitution. It’s a relief that after this election, the Liberal Democratic party in the Commons will reflect that aspiration rather better than it has done in the past.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

0800 7318496