by Kevin Meagher
Northern Ireland is a place apart, we all know that much. Normal rules don’t apply. Things are done differently. Political gravity, as we understand it, doesn’t hold.
Or perhaps it didn’t. If there was any justice, the phrase ‘First Minister Arlene Foster’ would already be written in the past tense. The scandal Mrs Foster finds herself embroiled in – the fallout from the anodyne-sounding Renewable Heat Incentive – is a proper Grade A political scandal.
If this was Westminster, she would be politically dead and buried.
The Renewable Heat Incentive, launched in 2012 while Foster was enterprise minister, was a cut-down version of British scheme to subsidise non-domestic customers – farms and businesses – in switching to wooden pellet-burning biomass boilers instead of oil.
The fairly elementary flaw in Northern Ireland’s version was a lack of cost controls. As the Auditor General succinctly put it, there was ‘no upper limit on the amount of energy that would be paid for. The more heat that is generated, the more is paid.’
‘Burn to earn,’ or ‘cash for ash,’ meant recipients could claw back £160 for every £100 used and has led to a massive £400m overspend.
It’s worth pointing out that Northern Ireland only has 1.8 million inhabitants – a population around the size of Hampshire. It’s the equivalent of a UK energy minister ballsing-up a scheme that saddled UK taxpayers with a £24bn liability.
So a classic case of the minister in charge needing to quit?
You might think so. But this is Northern Ireland and, well, reread the first paragraph.
But this scandal – and the crisis it has produced – is different.
This time the issue in contention is not a threat to the peace process, or down to irreconcilable differences between unionists and nationalists (as it was over welfare cuts in 2015). This is a case of bog-standard, garden-variety, run-of-the-mill administrative and political incompetence where the penalty – rightly – is a ministerial scalp.
Northern Ireland is now big enough to lose a First Minister because of ineptitude alone. The DUP is, however, loath to concede this point, making public displays of backing Foster. The next few days will reveal how sincere they are.
If events take a turn for the worse, if, say, incriminating emails surface proving Foster was warned about the scheme, or if its shown DUP supporters disproportionately benefited from it, (and you can rest assured every journalist in Northern Ireland is checking to see), then it will surely be curtains for her.
What’s also different this time is there are no winners on the other side of the politico-sectarian divide. Sinn Fein has done everything possible to be helpful to Foster. The party refused to back the assembly’s motion of no confidence in her, which resulted in a messy stalemate.
Deputy First Minister (in reality, joint FM) Martin McGuinness was arguing Foster should step aside and allow an investigation as early as last week in order to take some of the heat out of the issue.
In a rambling, indulgent and largely incoherent speech to the assembly (after all the other parties had walked out in protest) Foster conceded this point. So there will now be a process that will keep this issue running, while the bad blood in the assembly caused by Foster’s inept handling of this crisis may yet precipitate fresh elections.
Yet only last May Foster led to the DUP to their joint-best ever performance in the assembly elections. Unfortunately, she has burned her reputation for political competence faster than those wood pellets and it’s unlikely the DUP will fare as well next time.
Ultimately, this mess is a test of the maturity of Northern Ireland’s political structures and whether the system can lose Foster without broader fallout.
It can. And it should.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and author of ‘A United Ireland: Why Unification is Inevitable and How It Will Come About,’ published by Biteback