Arlene’s Ash For Cash Scandal: 10 Points to Ponder (No Comments)

1. Arlene Foster, and Arlene Foster alone, shoulders the blame through the basic principle of ministerial responsibility for the introduction of a Northern Ireland-specific RHI scheme that was appallingly devised and implemented.

2. The DUP as a political party is exclusively culpable for the most significant financial crisis in the albeit short history of the devolved institutions in the north of Ireland. Whether or not Arlene Foster is forced from post will not detract from the fact that the DUP brand and reputation has been dealt a severe blow which will likely have serious implications over time. The party which had carefully crafted an image of being the natural, fiscally competent and responsible party of government in the north of Ireland now carries the mark of RHI disdain that won’t be easy to remove.

3. Central to the DUP’s approach to governance has been preserving strong discipline and clear ideological direction through a sharp, hungry and hard  leadership tier which relies heavily on the input and guidance of its SpAd team. The amount of money spent on special advisers at Stormont has previously been noted as being greater than the total figure spent for the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales put together, underlining their importance to our local parties.

The RHI scandal brings centre stage the DUP’s approach to governance, and how the stature of the SpAds overshadows the input of party executive ministers.

Crucially, it also highlights how a number of the DUP SpAds appear to have acted in a manner that not only contributed to the crisis (through their failure to do their job and ensure the Northern Irish RHI scheme was fit for purpose) but also through actions alleged by Jonathan Bell and demonstrated elsewhere (with regard to joining the list of RHI beneficiaries) which should hasten not just a public investigation into the entire scheme but also an internal DUP investigation into the role and function of SpAds and their relationship with elected party representatives.

4. Arlene’s “Throw Johnny Bell under the bus” strategy is contingent upon her making the case that, regardless of advice and direction from SpAds or civil servants, the buck stops with the Minister with regard to creating the ‘Spike period’ in which almost half of the RHI beneficiaries got on board the gravy train. Yet that very same principle, of the buck stopping with the Minister, is what hoists Arlene on her own petard. She alone served as minister when the scheme was devised and implemented.

This morning, the Belfast Telegraph revealed that Jonathan Bell has instructed his solicitor, Paul Tweed, to sue Arlene Foster for comments made during the extraordinary Nolan interviews broadcast on Thursday evening.

A political popcorn experience it may be for others, but for the DUP this is a disaster.

5. The rationale for a Northern Irish specific RHI scheme remains puzzling and not entirely convincing.  It was Arlene Foster’s decision to roll out a programme shorn of the safeguards in the form of the tiering approach and cap which proved decisive in ensuring this would become a potential £450m mistake. The input of civil servants, SpAds and Foster in the conception of the programme will be important to establish.

6. Why the ‘spike’? If incompetence is ultimately established to be the reason for the design of the fatal NI RHI scheme, it is far from certain to be the only reason for which the now notorious ‘Spike period’ was allowed to happen. The unprecedented public fallout between two senior DUP figures this week is directly linked to the desire of all key players in the party to distance themselves from ultimate responsibility for allowing the ‘Spike period’ to happen- with devastating consequences for public expenditure, political careers, reputations and legacies.

The DUP are on the ropes over this one, and the suggestion that the party was set to offer up Bell as a sacrificial lamb is likely to have been what prompted him to go public in such a devastating manner.

Jonathan Bell claims that DUP SpAds and Arlene Foster did not want him to close the scheme, thereby implying that they allowed the spike period to happen. They, in turn, vehemently deny this and point to ministerial responsibility to suggest that, whatever (if any) advice was offered Bell, he as minister shoulders responsibility and ultimately the blame for whatever decisions are taken (or delayed) and the consequences that flow thereafter.

7. Who got on and when: Cui bono?

The DUP have a massive problem in this regard, with the cumulative effect of the drip drip of names of party-linked individuals as RHI beneficiaries only likely to raise further questions, prolonging the misery for the party. The fact that at least one prominent DUP SpAd (Stephen Brimstone) personally benefited as an RHI beneficiary as did close relatives of two DUP SpAds (Brimstone again and Andrew Crawford) makes it very difficult for the party to maintain that senior party figures were not aware of the lucrative nature of the scheme as designed and implemented under Arlene Foster.  

8. The DUP will know they are in choppy waters now and their plan to ride out the storm does not appear to be working. Arlene Foster would have hoped to have gotten away with an Assembly statement delivered on Monday in which she would have flirted with remorse whilst also seeking to change the public and media focus to her plans for recouping the anticipated losses over the next two decades.

Instead, the momentum built up as a consequence of the Bell expose and McGuinness’ public appeal for Foster to step aside now means the DUP know that much more will be required to see the party- and Foster in particular- through this crisis. The clamour for a judge-led independent public inquiry has reached such a level that, were the DUP to oppose one now, they would appear to be doing so in order to conceal the truth. 

9. Sinn Fein’s early Friday evening call for Arlene to step aside is an acknowledgement by the party that the nationalist and republican base has been increasingly dissatisfied with the party’s muted responses to date on the unfolding crisis. Sinn Fein do not want the Executive to collapse, and would be quite happy for this episode to blow over with Arlene Foster remaining at the helm of a humbled DUP.

But events have transpired to make that outcome far less certain than what would have been predicted only 72 hours ago. Watch to see who is given the brief of leading the Sinn Fein charge on this issue. Conor Murphy was entrusted with explaining the McGuinness statement in media interviews last night. The south Armagh man was widely predicted to be the figure being lined up several years ago to succeed as the new northern leader for Sinn Fein when Adams and McGuinness eventually depart the stage.

With McGuinness suffering from ill-health at present, the process of leadership transition which Adams and McGuinness have so far failed to successfully consider- never mind deliver- will be to the forefront of their minds. Giving Murphy a pre-eminent role for the party over the issue that looks set to dominate northern politics for the period ahead could be far from incidental.

10. The Fresh Start Executive signalled the formal beginning of Opposition-style politics in post-Good Friday Agreement Northern Ireland. Whilst the UUP and SDLP failed to hit the ground running in the early months, they both deserve credit for agitating effectively over the RHI Scandal. In particular, Colum Eastwood has made astute public comments and the SDLP’s decision to put down a Motion of No Confidence in Arlene Foster was an excellent move that has heaped pressure upon the DUP and also forced Sinn Fein to act.

In today’s Irish News, the political correspondent, John Manley, offers an analysis of what could transpire in the time ahead:

“Arguably, Mr McGuinness’ call [for Arlene to step aside temporarily] offers the most pragmatic route forward, providing an opportunity to reduce the relentless heat that threatens the combustion of the institutions. The suggestion that his Stormont Castle counterpart take a sabbatical has echoes of how Peter Robinson maneouvred after the Irisgate scandal broke. Then there was a period when the first minister stepped aside and an independent investigation was carried out which ultimately vindicated him- albeit in a private report that was never made public and could never be scrutinised.

The difference with this scandal is that despite Mrs Foster’s assertion that she can’t be across “every jot and tittle,” she is actually up to her oxters in the RHI and with potential for more revelations to come, it’s possible that when she steps aside, it will be for good.” [my emphasis]