Arlene Foster triumphant thanks to Sinn Fein. Imagine that!

Arlene won hands down, thanks to Sinn Fein with a little help from the Speaker. True she was always going to win the day as Sinn Fein declined to wield the knife by withdrawing from the Executive on foot of her refusal to step aside, but it was nice for her to be seen to win it too.

She didn’t have to be gracious and by God she wasn’t.  Magnificently alone apart from her DUP chorus she was allowed to make her dignified defence first in a Statement doubtfully in order;  and then  later to cut up rough in answering the Exclusion motion a.k.a. a vote of confidence, jointly sponsored and quite well moved for the SDLP by its young leader Colum Eastwood.

Two bites of the cherry in one day.  What a gift!  It was unique to my knowledge to be able to answer a motion of no confidence before it’s even moved. No wonder all the opposition parties were furious to find they had been swatted aside “ uttering sound and fury , signifying nothing.”  For it was Sinn Fein and only Sinn Fein who mattered all the time.

Arlene wasn’t even defiant, she was contemptuous as she wielded a forensic club – no fancy fencing from her. Her lines grew better and better as she warmed to her theme once she  had disposed  point by point of her former colleague Jonathan Bell’s charges of keeping the RHI scheme going rather than halting it.  On the opposition move to exclude her from office:

“It was nothing short of an attempted coup d’etat but a coup in a Carry On film.”

What we have is trial by television to build my political gallows.(Watch out, BBC NI).

This is a motion designed to fail ( the SDLP/UU motion that is). It reduces politics to a soap opera .. or a TV drama but not a believable one at that”

And some points of substance.

The use of Section 30 of the NI Act 1998 ( designed  to exclude a minister for violating the pledge of office  to use exclusively peaceful means – e.g.. Sinn Fein for IRA activity) was “a  massive overreach “ for allegations which fell far short of the section’s  requirements Arguably, quite right.

“What people want to know is how to reduce costs, not clawback.”

More doubtfully she acquitted herself of failure to set a tariff for the scheme and notice the warning signs of later problems.  “They didn’t appear on my desk, ” as she depicted herself as the unlikely victim of official incompetence. We certainly need to hear a lot more from the traditionally silent civil servants who rely on ministers to defend them, not foist all blame unto them.

The motion was moved without establishing  “ a scintilla of evidence” against her and amounted to “a rush to judgement to question the fitness of the  Assembly public accounts committee’s  investigation into  the handling of the RHI affair. She made much of her willingness to “ break precedent” and appear before them and clearly prefers sticking with the committee investigation to appearing  before a  higher -powered independent judicial inquiry.

If there was any mention of a  “ judge-led  inquiry” I missed it. One for later  –  if at all. Nor did she have a single cross word for the movers of the long amendment that wasn’t from the nemesis that wasn’t- Sinn Fein. Did she know something we didn’t?

She was never going to lose the cross community vote but that wasn’t the point. Nor really was her spirited defence.  It was the largely absent spectre at the feast who mattered – Sinn Fein, also the mouse that roared,  proving that if  the Executive parties stick together even back-to-back,  nothing can dislodge them.

For now at least, the ins- and out of the RHI scheme have been left behind. This was another stage  in the rocky road to government cohesion by a coalition of opposites that left the tyro opposition gasping.

For fans of democracy this is the slightly unnerving verdict.

Sinn Fein will revive their motion in orderly terms in the New Year. Will we have a  different and more effective re-run of today, this time with Sinn Fein in the driving seat and  moving the substantive motion? It didn’t sound as if Arlene’s withdrawal would be non-negotiable.   What are the chances of a joint DUP/Sinn Fein motion to set up the inquiry? At least that way, they would stay procedurally in order.

Almost certainly, game over and probably the match.


Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London