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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