A major political crisis has been quietly brewing in Northern Ireland, threatening political meltdown yet again. In a sign of how increasingly normalised post-Troubles politics in the region are becoming, the issue is not about power-sharing, religion or the constitutional question. Instead, it is embroiled in a plain old-fashioned expenses scandal.
Dubbed the “cash for ash” affair, it has emerged that a public project begun in 2012 has been mishandled and will cost the taxpayer more than £400m. The Renewable Heat Initiative was designed to encourage local businesses to use more eco-friendly heating and gave them a financial incentive to do so. However, it appears the project was badly orchestrated, with serious flaws from the outset. Businesses soon realised they could be paid to burn fuel pointlessly. One farmer was reportedly given £12m to needlessly heat a shed for 20 years.
Arlene Foster, Democratic Unionist leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland, is the main focus of public ire. She was the minister in charge of the project at the time, and in a rare move for a political party built on fierce loyalty, her DUP colleague Jonathan Bell has spoken out against her. He has told local media that Foster ordered civil servants to expunge documents to make it look less like she was responsible for the mess.
Foster now faces calls from all sides to stand down as First Minister. She denies all wrongdoing and says she has been unfairly attacked. The scandal has been simmering since early December and is now escalating as opposition parties tabled a motion of no-confidence against her shortly before Christmas.
The respite afforded by the Christmas parliamentary recess has been short-lived and Sinn Fein is now floating the possibility of triggering an election in a bid to oust Foster and undermine her party while it is out of favour with public opinion.
Calls for her resignation show no sign of abating and Foster’s position is looking increasingly untenable. She has now told local media that calls for her to resign are “misogynistic” and that a man in her position would not be asked to do the same. She said: “A lot of it is personal, a lot of it sadly is misogynistic as well because I am a female – the first female leader of Northern Ireland – so I firmly believe that is the case as well.”
Politics in Northern Ireland is certainly rife with misogyny. Foster is the first female First Minister the region has ever had. Just 28 per cent of MLAs are female, compared to 43 per cent of elected politicians in Wales and 35 per cent in Scotland.
During the Westminster election, the Belfast Telegraph published an article by a male journalist critiquing election posters of candidates, which included rating women’s makeup, outfits, and whether they were showing too much “cleavage”. While it is difficult to imagine any mainstream publications publishing such an article elsewhere in the UK, it was dismissed in Northern Ireland as just a bit of fun.
However, while it is welcome that Foster is opening up discussions about sexism in Northern Irish politics, she appears to be using the accusations of misogyny here as no more than a mere smokescreen. Misspending £400m of public funds in a nation as small as Northern Ireland is a huge cost to the public purse. Similarly, allegedly ordering civil servants to tamper with documents to reduce the appearance of responsibility is a major accusation that must be investigated by an independent, fair and impartial inquiry.
In particular, it is especially curious to see a Democratic Unionist politician cite concerns about gender equality. The party is misogynistic to its core. As an evangelical Christian party that seeks to run Northern Ireland according to what it considers God’s own wishes, it has a consistent track record of oppressing women.
During peace talks leading up to the Good Friday Agreement, current MP Ian Paisley Jr drowned out the voices of women when discussing gendered violence and the conflict, by loudly moo-ing like a cow so they literally could not be heard.
At the 2015 general election, the party didn’t run a single female candidate for any of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies. When Foster became leader in January of last year, the party sought to reassure party members who may feel uneasy at the thought of a woman in charge by announcing that her “most important” job was “that of a wife, mother and daughter”.
The party is one of the many in Stormont upholding Northern Ireland’s abortion ban, which makes it a criminal offence to have a termination even in the case of incest, rape or fatal foetal abnormality. Belfast High Court ruled last year that it breaches international human rights laws, but the DUP and other parties voted to keep it anyway. MPs at Westminster could overturn it, but largely do not know or do not care, and so the ban has been kept in place, with a woman being prosecuted for having an abortion in April last year.
The party also recently criminalised sex work, not due to any concern about workers’ safety but a puritan Protestant logic that women must be saved from their own sins.
The DUP is also pro-austerity, an ideology that disproportionately harms women who are more likely to be in receipt of benefits or be on the poverty line.
So while it is welcome that Foster is opening up discussions about misogyny in Northern Ireland, the track record of both her party and her individually suggest it is little more than a desperate distraction technique. The major allegations of misspending are serious and deserve independent investigation. While she also supports criminalising sex workers, imprisoning women who have abortions and running all-male political campaigns, the concerns Foster has vocalised this week seem little more than a desperate and insincere attempt to cling to power.