RHI. Ah, the greatest Vaudeville production of the modern Stormont era. I have a little sympathy for most of those caught in its undertow (although there’s a fair amount of culpability to take the shine off that too). Including the former First Minister.
Watching her give evidence yesterday the thing that struck me is that her appreciation or understanding of the issue does not seem to have improved since she was caught like a rabbit in the headlights by that last minute volte-face by Martin McGuinness.
This may be a strategic choice to demonstrate she really wasn’t informed as she should by her senior civil servants (Coghlin’s findings should bear this out), but it demonstrates an oddly shallow grasp of department business for one who then became First Minister.
Sam McBride (researcher or visiting journalist check out his archive for a decent grasp the longer arch detail of the story) alights on a key moment in the development of the story, June 2016, when the permanent government first flagged up the fiscal gap issue:
Inquiry chairman Sir Patrick Coghlin asked: “When you had this meeting at the start of June, why do you think you have no recollection of it, or had no recollection of it, or conflated it?”
Mrs Foster said: “Because I probably didn’t think it was an important issue at that particular time. I think it just became conflated into the second meeting when he asked would I mind if Andrew helped him out…”
Sir Patrick said: “You didn’t think it was an important issue? You had been responsible minister for the development of the RHI and Mr Cairns had come in to say that the minister – or DETI, the department – had dropped the ball. When you say you didn’t think it was important, is that consistent with your earlier evidence when you told us you weren’t interventionist once a scheme got going?”
Mrs Foster asked: “In what way?” Sir Patrick said: “In that if someone comes along and tells you that a scheme that has developed under your bailiwick has been in difficulties to the extent that the department has dropped the ball, one might have thought that you might have thought that was quite important.”
Mrs Foster said: “Well for the department at that particular point in time RHI was not the priority problem; the priority was the NIRO [a different green energy scheme]…”
Her convenient loss of memory is aided by the fact that civil servants had long since stopped keeping notes for DUP (and SF) Ministers.
But it later proved to be a pivotal moment. A decision in principle was made to close the loophole which had gone unnoticed through the first four years of the scheme precisely because so few people had taken up a scheme that involved outlay of between £25k and £45k.
The news that the minister was so minded to close the loophole in the autumn was then fed by the energy team into their business networks, causing a huge spike in demand that Autumn. Enter the murder of Kevin McGuigan in August.
After the PSNI identified a deep link between the Provisionals and the McGuigan assassination team Robinson initiated a partial Ministerial walk out, that left Mrs Foster as the only full-time minister the Executive as acting First Minister.
With DUP ministers only at their desks a few hours a week, Bell’s plans for closure were delayed at the very moment that budgets were starting to get smashed out of the park. Only Foster and the party’s SpAds were full time at their desks.
Ironically, the poor note-taking may help to explain why when the crisis hit after the BBC Spotlight programme hit the airwaves, Mrs Foster has such great difficulties accounting for the twisting and turning complications in her official backstory.
Foster’s humiliation in a thousand tiny cuts at the Coghlin Inquiry is unlikely to see the party turn on her. Like the attempt to get a recall ballot going against Paisley, it is only likely to be followed up by a deepening of the trenches in this hollow culture war.
But the NI public is getting a first-hand view of what bad government looks like, and once seen it will be very hard for them to unsee it again.
The question is where does that leave us regarding a return to Stormont, if not a permanent (or at best semi-permanent) failure of the institutions of the Belfast Agreement? As I noted on Sky last week, it is a problem for both states:
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty