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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. 

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Labour is condemned to watch helplessly as Theresa May consolidates power

The Zombie Party is too weak to win and too strong to die. 

Labour’s defeat to the Tories in the Copeland by-election in Cumbria, which the party had held for more than 80 years, is a humiliation for Jeremy Corbyn and his moribund party. This is the first time a governing party had gained a seat in a by-election since Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives won Mitchum and Morden in 1982. 
 
The victorious candidate Trudy Harrison, who increased the Tories’ share of the vote in this former Labour “stronghold" by more than 8 percentage points, hailed the victory as “truly historic”, while Labour MP John Woodcock called it a “disaster”, and even the shadow chancellor and Corbyn ally, John McDonnell, conceded it was a “profound disappointment”. 
 
At a time in the electoral cycle when a credible opposition should be winning by-elections and riding high in the polls, Labour is in disarray: rejected, humiliated, ridiculed. It has all but collapsed in Scotland, where the Tory leader Ruth Davidson has emerged as the popular, unapologetic leader of Unionism. And in England the danger now is not that it will lose seats to Ukip — whose leader Paul Nuttall was rejected yesterday in the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election, which Labour held on a low turn-out after a dispiriting campaign — but to Theresa May’s Conservatives. 
 
The Copeland result was a vindication for Theresa May. When recently I interviewed her in Downing Street she had a simple message for Labour: we are coming after your voters – and she is. 
 
Because of its embrace of the radical left and internal divisions, May accused Labour of abandoning many of its traditional supporters. The party was not responding to their concerns on issues such as “the impact of immigration on lower income levels”.
 
True enough: Corbyn favours mass immigration and open borders yet is an economic protectionist – a classic Marxist position but electoral suicide in our new emerging post-liberal era in which populist movements are rising across Europe and an America First nationalist is in the White House.
 
“I hope there are Labour voters,” Theresa May told me, “out there who will now look at us afresh and say, ‘Labour hasn’t responded to our concerns, it hasn’t recognised what matters to us, but the Conservatives have seen that and are responding to it. I want our greater prosperity not to be confined to particular groups of people or a single part of the country.”
 
The polls suggest that more than simply disaffected Labour voters are looking at the Tories afresh, as we embark on the epic challenge of negotiating the Brexit settlement.
  
May believes that Brexit was not only a vote to leave the European Union but a demand for change from those people – many of them in places such as Copeland - who felt ignored and excluded from prosperity and greater opportunity.
 
Her vision is for a “Great Meritocracy” (whereas Corbyn’s is for a socialist republic) combining greater social justice with enhanced social mobility. It’s an intellectually fascinating and ambitious project and, if successful (and many doubt her, not least her own right wing), it has the potential to condemn Labour to electoral oblivion.
    
The collapse of the Labour party as a stable and credible political force is dismaying. Many of the party’s problems precede Corbyn, who is sincere and determined but is not a national leader. But then neither was Ed Miliband, who misunderstood the financial crisis, which he believed had created a “social democratic moment”, and misread the country he sought to govern. Miliband treated politics like an elevated Oxbridge PPE seminar and introduced the new rules by which the party elected its leader, disempowering MPs.
 
The distinguished Cambridge historian Robert Tombs has called the European Union a system of “managed discontents”. Something similar could be said of Corbyn’s Labour, except that its discontents are scarcely managed at all.

Most Labour MPs despise or are embarrassed by their leader. The MPs are divided and demoralised, with some pondering whether to follow Tristram Hunt and Jamie Reed (whose resignations created respectively the Stoke Central and Copeland by-elections) out of politics. The Corbynites are breaking up into factions (one hears talk of “hard” and “soft” Corbynites), and Corbyn himself is incapable of appealing to those who do not share his ideological convictions.
 
For now, the Labour leader retains the support of activists and members and, crucially, of Unite, Britain’s biggest union and the party’s paymaster. But even his friends must accept that he is leading the party in only one direction – into the abyss.
 
On the eve of the two by-elections, Corbyn posted a message on Facebook: “Whatever the results, the Labour Party – and our mass membership – must go further to break the failed political consensus, and win power to rebuild and transform Britain.”
 
The statement was received with derision on social media. The idea that Labour can win power any time soon (notwithstanding some black swan event) is magical thinking. Corbyn’s personal ratings among traditional working class semi-skilled and unskilled Labour voters are catastrophically poor. He appeals to students, affluent metropolitans with degrees, and minority groups. As for the majority of the electorate, forget it.
 
MPs are reluctant to challenge Jeremy Corbyn because they know any leadership contest would revitalize his leadership, as happened last summer when the Welsh MP Owen Smith mounted an ill-considered and doomed “coup”. Nor is there a pre-eminent candidate waiting in the shadows to strike, as Michael Heseltine was in the last years of the Thatcher administration.
 
So Labour will continue to be the Zombie Party: too weak to win but too strong to die. Its founding mission was to defend the labour interest and to create a fairer, more ethical society. But Labour has lost its role, its confidence and sense of purpose. Obsessed by identity liberalism, bewildered by Brexit and led by a radical socialist, Labour can only look on helplessly as the Tories start to win seats in its former heartlands and hunker down for another decade or more in power.

This column was originally published in the London Evening Standard.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.