The DUP must have hoped that the Christmas break would help relieve the pressure facing the party’s senior figures over the RHI scandal.
The latest revelations, that Arlene Foster as DETI Minister wrote to banks in early 2013 urging them to “look favourably” on approaches from businesses seeking money to install renewable technologies for the RHI scheme, has led to renewed calls for her to resign.
Sinn Fein’s move to make January 16th the Decision Day was interpreted as providing a window of opportunity for the two parties to hammer out a compromise path that could allow the Executive to remain afloat and navigate an albeit difficult route through the choppy waters ahead.
But the Sinn Fein line, publicly and privately, has only hardened in the interim, and it is now increasingly clear that the party are sticking to the position that Arlene Foster will be required to step aside for a period of time as First Minister if we are to avoid the Executive’s collapse and the triggering of a new election campaign when D-Day arrives mid-January.
The manner in which the DUP leader- and DUP Speaker- conducted affairs when the Assembly was reconvened for the no confidence motion on December 19th, coupled with the decision of DUP Communities Minister, Paul Givan, to sucker punch Sinn Fein over the Liofa Bursary Scheme has only served to harden the republican party’s position in the face of an angry nationalist electorate which has grown weary of observing republicans playing second fiddle to the DUP at Stormont. Robin Newton’s scalp may yet be claimed in what looks likely to be a humbling beginning to 2017 for the DUP.
The republican demand for an independent inquiry conducted by a judicial figure from outside the jurisdiction is something the DUP may be able to live with, though the timeframe proposed, of a preliminary report after 4 weeks and the publication of a full report some 3 months later, does sound ambitious.
Crucially, though, that timeframe does allow for Arlene Foster to return after either 4 weeks, or 4 months, if the findings of an inquiry do not deliver a fatal blow to her political career.
The silence of DUP figures in recent times does suggest that they are conscious of the gravity of the deepening crisis. The party will be very aware of the fact that this affair is deeply damaging for the reputation of the DUP as a party. It is, quite simply, toxic for a party which prided itself on being seen to be the most competent and natural party of government in the north of Ireland.
An election in coming months, triggered by a failure to agree a way ahead with Sinn Fein in the next two and a half weeks, will be fought against the backdrop of the drip drip of more RHI-related stories that can only make things difficult for DUP candidates on the doorstep.
In her Christmas and New Year message, the DUP leader avoided referencing directly the RHI scandal that has sent her party into tailspin. Foster has been adamant that she won’t resign up to this point.
We’ll know soon enough if she has had second thoughts.