Four lessons from the Opposition’s failed RHI attempt at political Regicide…

So the grave consequences of the RHI scandal is to be an election, hints Alex Maskey. After Arlene publicly spurned Martin’s friendly advice that she should step aside whilst a judge-led inquiry gets stuck into investigating her ministerial inadequacies

Any new election would run on five seat constituencies, something that’s likely to cause more damage to the smaller parties than the two in government. But just ask yourself what would such an election decide: and it will tell you something important about this whole affair.

Who knew what in the mismanagement of (despite the large 20-year figure) a small scale heating scheme? SF SpAds were given privileged briefings in January when SDLP, UUP and Alliance minister were their supposed co-equal partners in government.

Like the low dealings around the NAMA affair, the pretence is just part of the panto. Such a poor excuse for an election would hardly last the ravages of a four-week campaign. Some [melo]drama, but no actual crisis.

In fact, as Eilis O’Hanlon rightly notes in the Bel Tel:

It’s simply an outbreak of common-or-garden political gamesmanship. It took a while, but finally, Stormont is starting to have full-scale squabbles, whose origins don’t date back to the time of the Troubles. A few months ago, it was Nama. Now it’s RHI. That’s not a crisis. It’s progress.

The “cash for ash” controversy is about money. Good, old-fashioned money. Specifically, the waste of it. Because that’s what government does – almost by definition.

In those pristine terms, here’s her scores on the doors:

Sinn Fein announced grandiosely that they’d lost confidence in the First Minister – while finding a way to not actually vote against her. Clever.

The Ulster Unionists played the school swots by correcting Speaker Robin Newton on the proper procedures for taking a point of order. Clever clogs.

The SDLP then tabled a motion to get rid of Mrs Foster, under Section 30 of the 1998 Northern Ireland Act, despite it having less chance of success than a team of oompa loompas playing basketball against the Harlem Globetrotters. Clever? Not so much.


Was she speaking as First Minister? DUP leader? MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone? Who knows? Who, apart from political anoraks, really cares? We just wanted to hear what she had to say.

There then followed a couple of hours of festive slapstick, as member after member used his or her five minutes of fame to either attack, or defend, the First Minister.

“Arlene is a lame duck,” cried nationalists.

“Oh no she isn’t,” shouted back (some) unionists.

“Oh yes she is.”

And so on.

Well, it is the panto season.

Enter the painted lady Vaudeville villain…

Even Belfast’s very own Widow Cranky, aka Gerry Adams, turned up to join in the fun, standing next to Martin McGuinness as the deputy First Minister addressed the media, even though he hasn’t been an MLA for five years.

Gerry’s checked shirt and corduroy jacket, in contrast to everyone else’s work clothes, gave the game away. He doesn’t dress like that in the Dail, his actual workplace. He was only up from Dublin for the day for the craic.

This collective giddiness is no excuse for the rest of us to mistake political tomfoolery for a real emergency, or to agree with the Ulster Unionists that the reputation of devolution “has plummeted from the gutter to the sewer”.

Them’s fighting words, Mike Nesbitt, but do the UUP really want to make a last-ditch stand on this issue?

No one said devolution had to be perfect. It just has to be better than the alternative.

And the biggest laugh of the show, ask Arlene to step aside over a policy level screw up…

Life would go on if she did. The top post in Government would continue to be held by the DUP. The trains would still run on time. Or still run, at any rate.

But Northern Ireland would be no better off. It would simply allow certain parties up on the Hill to claim bragging rights. Arlene’s opponents want the right to say that they “got” her and to present her humiliation to their supporters as a sign that devolution is working for their tribe and it’s a long way from clear why she should gift them such a triumph at this time. Allegations are not the same as facts. “Corruption” is too big a word to hang on rumour.

Or is this the way things work now – if a former colleague makes a complaint against you, then you automatically have to step aside while it’s investigated? What happened to innocent until proven guilty?

Try taking that one out on the doorsteps lads and lasses!! As Ms O’Hanlon also notes:

Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir certainly didn’t play ball when he faced calls to stand aside pending clarification of what he knew about Sinn Fein’s coaching of Nama inquiry witness Jamie Bryson.

Is there one law for one side of the chamber and a different law for the other?

Well, that’s the business of politics, getting the mud to stick. I’m inclined to be slightly more generous towards the opposition. The main political currency in Northern Ireland has been passive aggression. And they are barely off their knees yet.

The only time I’ve seen serious accountability being actively pursued in Stormont using the governance structures provided by the Belfast Agreement was the PAC’s grilling of NI Water in the summer of 2010.

The result was the fall of a Permanent Secretary, accompanied by a chilling indifference amongst more than half of NI’s media outlets who were too enthralled by troubles era/tribalist themes to take notice of what was going down in Stormont.

In effect, the SDLP promised a royal hanging when they should have gone for a tightly argued interrogation of a thousand cuts via the PAC.

They allowed themselves to be drawn into (on a daily basis) Stephen Nolan’s line of inquiry.  Instead of pushing their own politicised lines, they were drawn into commenting on his prime witness’s time in office (leaving the key 2013-15 period unexamined).

The exclusion order was them losing the run of themselves. As a result, they will lose control of the external inquiry, which will likely focus exclusively on debunking Nolan’s more limited but sensationalist case against Arlene.

By the time the PAC rightly apportion her screw ups to her time at DETI, they public will have moved on.

So what can the opposition learn from this episode?

  1. The FM is not good with detail, and this weakness is not likely to go away anytime soon. There will be other RHI’s.
  2. Overreach is a trap for the political ego. Clever rhetoric is a poor second to owning the territory on which Ministers trade and make their decisions. And that takes time. In the case of Stormont, probably a lot of time. Stay low, hit hard.
  3. Use the tools already provided. The FM relished noting that SDLP refused to use Exclusion in regard to SF’s connection to ongoing terrorism. A heating scheme needs a PAC hearing. Oppositions MLAs can be effective no matter how many government colleagues are present.
  4. Offer the media your narrative, not comment. One reason the DUP and SF are in government and the UUP and the SDLP are not is because they are better at offering the media clear messages and jumping off points. Learn from your tormentors!  

Something to chew over for the holidays…