Soapbox: Arlene Foster Was Never a Suitable First Minister

The exclusion motion on Arlene Foster focussed on the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal.  I would argue, however, that Mrs Foster has a track record beyond RHI that shows she was never suitable to be our First Minister.

The potential £250m clean-up costs highlighted in 2013 by the Mills Report into illegal waste dumping in Northern Ireland I believe can be traced back to Arlene Foster’s decision when Environment Minister, not to create an independent Environmental Protection Agency (iEPA). 

In 2007 the Review of Environmental Governance in Northern Ireland highlighted the systemic failures within the then Environment and Heritage Service.  Foster simply chose to go with what was effectively a rebrand and the Northern Ireland Environmental Agency was created. 

Crucially it was neither independent nor tasked solely with environmental protection, environmental mismanagement continued and we are still dealing with the consequences.

Under her watch as Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister, Northern Ireland lost what was reported to be a £1bn offshore wind farm project. 

At 600MW it would have been the largest offshore wind farm in the UK and to put the scale in context at the end of 2014, the total renewable electricity generation capacity in Northern Ireland was 660MW.

This was a key infrastructure project which would have created jobs and reduced our reliance on imported fossil fuels.

It was lost because the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change would not recognise the specific circumstances of Northern Ireland and permit the company, First Flight Wind (FFW), access to the Contracts for Difference scheme which was essential to make the project economically viable. 

Leasing of Crown Estate land happened later in Northern Ireland and FFW argued they should have been given additional time to meet the requirements of the scheme given their GB counterparts had had a head start.

Having spoken to the company, the Department and raised it through Assembly Questions, it became clear that while Arlene Foster had written to her DECC counterpart the matter had not been treated with urgency. 

There had been no Minister to Minister meetings and the project was lost due to a lack of political will. 

There has been a lot of information, misinformation and spin over the RHI scandal, and getting to the facts has been difficult, hence the need for an independent public inquiry. 

One thing that I am confident about is that it was Arlene Foster’s decision not to introduce cost control measures. 

There was a consultation on it and as the Head of DETI Energy Division confirmed to me when I questioned him at the ETI Committee meeting of 9th February 2016:

“the NI scheme was underperforming and therefore we weren’t using up what was, you might call ‘free money’ in terms of AME, so ministers decided the priority should be the introduction of domestic RHI scheme”.

There are three things I look at in deciding whether a Minister should receive my confidence; their decisions, values and character. RHI, FFW and the lack of an iEPA highlight what to me are failures of Foster’s decision making. 

In politics, it is normal to have different values from political opponents.  That I have different values to Arlene Foster is not surprising.  Character is different: you can disagree with someone’s values but respect their character.

Arlene Foster is generally considered a ‘strong’ politician.  However, in her reaction to the RHI revelations, she has demonstrated is that she is feisty, aggressive and combative. These should not be confused with strength. 

The rush to blame her civil servants for the failures of RHI shows real weakness that I have witnessed up close in the past.

When I called for her to be sacked as ETI Minister in 2011 over her failure to declare that her husband owned land in the licensed area, she stated that she had not been involved in granting the licence, that it was her civil servants.

The first ever motion I brought to the Assembly was on ‘fracking’.  I was both relatively young and my party’s only MLA: in direct opposition to Arlene Foster, an experienced Minister, and the DUP, the largest party in the Assembly. 

In winding on the motion I gave way to Arlene Foster who argued that no fracking licences had been granted. 

When I held up the petroleum licence which had been granted to Tamboran and pointed out that fracking was specifically mentioned in the licence, Foster’s response was to turn her back on me and the debate. 

Arlene Foster was in a position of strength, yet in that moment she showed a weakness that is at the heart of the calls of no confidence over RHI than her decision making.  Not introducing costs controls was a monumental mistake. 

But what has damaged Foster more is her reaction to the accusations. 

She has blamed her officials, Jonathan Bell, opposition parties and the media, before finally, begrudgingly accepting in a speech to an almost empty Assembly, that as Minister, she had been the person responsible. 

Had she held up her hands immediately, admitted she got it wrong and committed to doing all in her power to right the wrong, the story would have died.  She would have taken one significant flesh wound, rather than a potential death by a thousand cuts.

That, however, is not Foster’s character.  Her natural instinct is to defend herself even if it means throwing others under the bus, and from the day she was made First Minister I’ve believed it would be her undoing. 

Given that she has risen to the top despite her track record, rather than because of it, I can only conclude that Arlene Foster is skilled in the art of politics, but is unsuitable to be our First Minister.

Steven Agnew has been a Green Party MLA for Northern Down since 2011.

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  • Neonlights

    Strangely enough, it is probably better to build a windfarm now than it would have been then, the technology has moved on. I’d also say that it annoys me that Northern Ireland has made little use outside of Strangford Lough of hydroelectrics. That said, agree with everything else in this article. Would add in the tripe she talked about electronic customs post Brexit.

  • Zorin001

    “Had she held up her hands immediately, admitted she got it wrong and committed to doing all in her power to right the wrong, the story would have died. She would have taken one significant flesh wound, rather than a potential death by a thousand cuts.

    That, however, is not Foster’s character. Her natural instinct is to defend herself even if it means throwing others under the bus, and from the day she was made First Minister I’ve believed it would be her undoing.”

    100% agreed and I have been saying exactly the same myself since the Bell interview and aftermath.

    Even Paisley knew when to tone it down upon reaching high office, I do wonder if Foster feels the need to be on the attack on all times to sew up her support amongst the more reactionary elements of the DUP who may not have warm regard for her?

  • Teddybear

    What surprises me is that people are surprised by all this incompetence. If Foster or Mc Guinness were in the open job market, they wouldn’t get an interview let alone a job of responsibility. Yet politicians when elected despite lack of intellect or experience are magically deemed competent to run massive government departments and keep abreast of great complexity.

    Politicians should create general policy and civil servants or suitable experienced people be in charge of risk management, deep analysis and planning and execution of public policy with checks and balances built in

  • Gary Thompson

    Whereas of course men are renowned for admitting mistakes as soon as they happen.

  • Gary Thompson

    I can’t think of very many of our elected representatives (MLAs or MPs) that would impress me if I were interviewing them for a job. Very few can construct a coherent sentence when speaking without notes, and some I saw at the session on Monday in Stormont couldn’t even do that.

  • Gary Thompson

    It seems to me it’s the curse of the ‘buggins turn’ in political leadership. Gordon Brown was installed after Blair and didn’t set the world on fire; May is shaping up to be even worse than Cameron (God help us), and both Robinson & Foster have not proven worthy to follow in the big man’s shoes. Perhaps it’s time the DUP looked outside of the fundy tent for it’s next leader?

  • Fidellum

    What an accurate portrayal of the lady. I remember Steven’s early political days too and one of Arlene’s responses to him (regarding a question he had posed about fracking in Fermabagh). “Instead of doing that, the alternative from the Green Party is that we should sit in a dark room with a blanket over our heads and not worry about the situation.”
    To me that response summed up the arrogance and contempt that seems to be second nature to her.
    But her biggest failing is that she never admits to being wrong even when she patently is. I’ve been looking for a single word to describe the condition she suffers from but had to settle for two words “delusional infallibility”.

  • Teddybear

    Perhaps my comment is ill advised in this climate of liberal McCarthyism

  • NMS

    I am surprised that her party colleagues have not taken action against her. Fighting an election on incompetence is not in their interests.

  • mickfealty

    No, we’ve removed it not just because of its stupidity. Read the commenting rules before you proceed further.

  • Zorin001

    I’d give Robinson his due that he knew how to firefight a crisis, even one he had caused himself when the temper got the better of him; he at least knew when to take a tactical step back when required.

  • Fidellum

    Pity. I had a reply ☺

  • Fear Éireannach

    I think you could fairly add in almost everything she has said related to Brexit.

  • Brendan Heading

    Yet politicians when elected despite lack of intellect or experience are magically deemed competent to run massive government departments and keep abreast of great complexity.

    This is called “democracy”. It is how most major Western countries run their affairs. So far, it’s been quite successful.

  • Brendan Heading

    This is a great article Steven. Fine job on keeping on top of the issues.

    I would have been one of the people who would have thought of Arlene as a competent minister. When she took over as First Minister I was sure she would be a safe pair of hands, and I’m sure that’s what Peter Robinson thought too. It’s been noticeable, in particular, how combative and stand-offish she is under questioning especially by the media.

  • Teddybear

    They maybe qualified to direct policy but they’re the wrong people to implement it.

  • woodkerne

    Entirely apt commentary from MLA Agnew. That he’s neither unionist or nationalist rather adds force to his assessment too.

  • woodkerne

    ‘… her biggest failing is that she never admits to being wrong even when she patently is …’ A fitting political epitaph indeed, should one be needed!

  • Brendan Heading

    It’s just as well then that Ministers don’t “implement it”. That’s the civil servants.

    Maybe if you’re going to dump all over the concept of representative democracy you might want to familiarise yourself with how it works first ?

  • woodkerne

    In spite of all that’s been said, I very much doubt that she’ll go or be putsched because neither her DUP comrades or Sinn Fein partners are minded so to do. As the Green MLA’s contribution attests, in this connection, Arlene Foster is either corrupt, incompetent, and/or both. Any one of these, you’d think, would in most circumstances of demonstrably failed leadership, be sufficient cause for disqualification from the role she occupies on grounds of unfitness for executive office. However, in the kingdom of the deaf, blind, dumb and dumber that is the DUP, the tetchy, humourless, and intellectually unreflective former solicitor is the
    uncontested queen-bee of the ‘enraged’ swarm.

    In common with most of her party, it seems very unlikely Arlene will learn anything or change anything in her demeanour or approach as a result. Nor though is
    it likely, for the reasons given among others, that she’ll be replaced. Allied to an embarassing absence of humility, the same truculent characteristics coolly described in the post (generally admired among unionists), one suspects, will permit the first minister to refuse point blank to admit fault for the catastrophic consequences of the RHI scheme. The low quality of the drones around her is surely one supporting reason why an internal movement against is unlikely. Notably too, her obduracy actually suits the DUP’s co-partners in government very well. Theirs is a waiting game. Foster’s incumbenncy suits the other unionist parties, who’ll each hope to benefit from the fiasco as well. For truthfully in the peculiar logrhythm of the power sharing assembly, for now there would appear to be not many if any realistic alternative.

  • Fidellum

    Heard about a rare condition on Waterford Whispers called TSS (Thin Skin Syndrome) and thought immediately of Arlene Foster. Maybe I was wrong (hard to admit) and she doesn’t suffer from delusional infallibilty after all.

  • Nevin

    “When I held up the petroleum licence which had been granted to Tamboran and pointed out that fracking was specifically mentioned in the licence,”

    Steven, can you please post a link to a copy of this licence?

  • fermanagh native

    I have admired AFs political skill and her meteoric rise in the DUP. Many of her admirers like her feisty and ‘no prisoners taken’ approach. Alas it is these traits which could be her undoing.

  • Fear Éireannach

    Ulster says no to climate justice.

  • Fidellum

    Nevin, the licence PL2-10 has long gone from the DETI now DfE website. If Steven isn’t able to provide a direct link I have a copy of the document but don’t know how I can share with you from here? In the mean time let me share the relevant ‘fracking’ bits of the licence.

    “Work Programme
    Part 2
    Years Four and Five
    xi) Drill exploration well to test Benbulben and Bundoran Shale Formations gas shale play, including coring, fracturing and testing programme.
    xvi) Drill 2nd exploration well to test Benbulben and Bundoran Shale play, including fracturing multiple horizontal legs, flow testing and seismic monitoring.”

    The multiple horizontal legs indicate HVHF i.e. High volume hydraulic fracturing which is the highly industrialised version carried out in the United States e.g. Pennysylvania.
    Hope this helps.

  • Fear Éireannach

    Perhaps Foster is not an expert in boilers. Yet, if you went to a solicitor to advise you on a contract you would expect her to ensure that it had reasonable limits and time scale, before review at least.

  • Fear Éireannach

    With Titanic built in a shipyard embodying many “Ulster” values, perhaps it actually rammed the iceberg to teach it who was boss.

  • Am Ghobsmacht
  • Am Ghobsmacht
  • eireanne3

    here’s some more info about fracking in general and fermanagh in particular, with a comment by a university researcher in the field

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    “[Ford said] “.. On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people.”

    “Odd,” said Arthur. “I thought you said it was a democracy.”

    “I did,” said Ford. “It is.”

    “So,” said Arthur, hoping he wasn’t sounding ridiculously obtuse, “why don’t the people get rid of the lizards?”

    “It honestly doesn’t occur to them,” said Ford. “They’ve all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they voted in more or less approximates to the government they want.”

    “You mean they actually vote for the lizards?”

    “Oh yes,” said Ford with a shrug, “of course.”

    “But,” said Arthur, going in for the big one again, “why?”

    “Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in.”

    Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

  • Fidellum

    Yes – well Googled!

  • Brian Walker

    There is alas nothing new in politicians refusing to admit they’re wrong, even major ones. Gordon Brown for instance. What’s interesting about this indictment is that it’s about government competence not tribal leadership. We need more of this from the opposition parties!

  • Nevin

    Many thanks, Fidellum and AG, I’m a bit more familiar with the Ballinlea story where I noted that the EIA was carried out by the company rather than by the DOE:

    Why then is the DOE minister putting those with concerns at the expense of challenging a non-independent environmental impact assessment?

  • Dreary Steeple

    ‘taken action against her’ now you know who wears the trousers in her party.

  • Fidellum

    Agreed that it’s nothing new etc but never ever admitting being wrong? Does that apply to Gordon? Maybe so and then remembering his contemptuous “bigoted woman” comment, perhaps Gordon and Arlene are rather similar. As I remember that comment contributed in no small way to his downfall. Arlene would do well to rein in this aspect of her personality. It’s standing in the way of her getting away with perceived incompetence in her oversight/handling of RHI.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Encapsulates so much.

  • eamoncorbett

    Oh yeah, Brian but come the next Assembly election will it be about the issues or will part of the opposition side with part of the government for the “greater good “.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Of course the RHI scandel is only one instance of a casual and uncommitted approach to the serious issue of renewable energy in a world of diminishing resources. The lack of serious strategic thinking by those we elect about wind generation has encouraged the growth such projects as simply a catagory of the customary “pork barrel” thinking. The sucessful re-direction of something which would always have required large scale strategic planning for genuine efficency into a covert subsidy system for farmers with the proliferation of inefficent single turbine generators and the consequent extensive spagetti networks of connection systems is yet another instance of placing the purely political needs of a voting base against the ammenity of our wider community.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Well, 1910-21 their forefathers “rammed” constitutionalsim to show it who was boss.

  • Reader

    Gary Thompson: Perhaps it’s time the DUP looked outside of the fundy tent for it’s next leader?
    If you think Arlene Foster is a fundy you have set a very low threshold for the condition.

  • Gary Thompson

    As a matter of fact I do have a low threshold for the condition. Generally, membership of the DUP is enough to trigger it.

  • Jeremy Cooke

    More accurately it would be called ” elective democracy”. There are other ways that it has been managed throughout history and sometimes they have been quite successful.

    Have a look at the system they used in Republican Venice. As a system that relied on a combination of ballots and elections it was quite effective and managed to stagger along for some 500 years.

    Representatives, professional civil servants and no parties – better chance of working here than our current system.

  • Peter Doran

    Well said Steven. Consider too the short- and mid-term impact on future green energy or other climate change related initiatives. As a result of the RHI debacle there will be extreme nervousness in the public mind about future participation in any similar initiatives.

    Considering the likely cumulative costs associated with cleaning up the illegal landfill site at Mobuoy Road, Foster’s decision on the EPA has already left us with a financial and ecological debt running into hundreds of millions of pounds.

    The running theme through all of this – whether its RHI, the decision to ignore expert opinion on our need for an independent EPA, or wind farm development – is a complete contempt from Foster and her party when it comes to the conservation of our environment and a stable atmosphere. Their scorched earth economics is a blight on the Creation for which some parts of the DUP claim to act as loving stewards, in faithful service to their Creator.

    Jonathan Bell didn’t know it when he cited Dr Paisley on that theatrical opening scene in the BBC Nolan Special, but the news that has come so slowly to the DUP and their ilk is that the sky is indeed falling in! The year 2016 is the year that will be remembered by the climate justice movement as the crossing of the 400 ppm threshold.

    The time has come for an end to secrecy on party funding
    The time has come for an independent Environmental Protection Agency
    The time has come for a democracy at the service of all, including the land, the sky, the rivers, the mountains and the seas that sustain us.

  • Rabby Burns

    The ‘Bitch is Back’ or is she?

    I noticed A. Foster said she would HAVE to work with M. O’Neill as opposed to ‘looking forward to working with her’
Does the DUP have any place in N.I politics with a leader like that?!
    Why did DUP go ahead and leave A. Foster in place for this election being fully aware of the possible consequences? Robinson stood aside while an investigation was held – Does she put herself above him for the short time she has been leader? The party is as arrogant as she!

    A. Foster caused the election – caused 10 of her colleagues to be on the dole – still insists on wearing the crown lapel pin (just to upset the Nationalists) and she has the neck still not to step aside!

    Foster should NEVER have been 1st minister! She has too much personal baggage (her father having been attached and she herself on a bus) She cannot be impartial.

    It doesn’t say much for the party who don’t have the courage to say “It’s time to go”. SF is not telling DUP who should be the leader but the DUP don’t understand that, they prefer to stand like sheep in the glare of a car’s headlights waiting for Arlene.

    All head’s of parties should refuse to work with her until after the enquiry!! However she has had her try and failed,they need another leader and I think Paisley could be the man.