December 2016 issue.
Six months have been a long time in politics for Northern First Minister Arlene Foster, as storm clouds have gathered round her ascetic political persona. In May she consolidated the DUP vote and seat numbers in the Assembly elections.
She seemed master of the political scene, just like newly-minted British Conservative leader, Teresa May.
Like May, she is now facing multiple problems. She inherited NAMA in the North One from Peter Robinson’s time as First Minister. No criminality has been proved. However, NAMA’s Northern portfolio was sold for less than a third of its value: and a Northern politician, still un-named though implications are heavy, was due to benefit from at least part of a £Stg7m payment. Several of those involved have strong DUP connections.
Foster has fumbled the inherited issue of UDA commander Dee Stitt. Stitt is Chief Executive of Charter NI, a community organisation based in East Belfast, which is overseeing a £1.7m social Investment Fund. In Northern Ireland one can just about get away with being a senior UDA member and convicted armed robber, and chairing bodies that get large sums of money from government. There is a certain feeling in the Protestant community that community projects linked to mainstream Republicans have received funding so projects from ‘their’ community should also be funded.
However, he behaves as a clownish caricature of a paramilitary, for example describing the North Down Defenders flute band as “our homeland security”. Police have added to the pressure, by saying that UDA members involved in Charter have also recently been involved in paramilitary activity.
In October, Foster told the Belfast Newsletter: “I do welcome the fact that he (Stitt) is stepping down”. However, Stitt failed to stand down. More recently she said it was not for her to advise the organisation on employment issues. At time of writing, it is clear Stitt’s position is untenable.
The Renewable Heat Incentive scheme cost the Northern Executive at least £400m and was instigated when Foster was Minister for Enterprise and Investment. In 2012 she launched the scheme, offering grant aid to shift Northern businesses away from using oil for heating and towards renewable energy in the form of wood pellets. There was no ceiling to the level of grant to be paid. Thus, businesses found they could profit by permanently heating empty buildings.
The civil servants involved wrongly believed the UK Treasury would cover the costs: in reality these were to come from the North’s Block Grant.
BBC Northern Ireland’s ‘Spotlight’ programme has revealed that a whistleblower approached Foster in 2013, explaining how businesses were profiting by wasting energy. She was referred on to the civil servants involved. It took almost three years for the scheme to be wound up.
It was monumental incompetence, with there being no suggestion of fraud but a general air of embarrassment about the lack of seriousness of purpose in the North towards the environment.
There is another potential problem. At time of writing, it is unclear how serious Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness’ illness is.
Through all storms, McGuinness has been a sturdy mudguard for first Robinson, then Foster. While Sinn Féin has criticised, it has been in deftly measured tones, falling far short of collapsing the institutions, or seeking heads, though this magazine has noted that Adams telegraphed to Robinson that if he collapsed the executive Sinn Féin would look for his head over the NAMA dodginess.
There is now significant disquiet in the Nationalist community. Many feel the DUP is being allowed to call the shots in the Executive. There is also a widespread feeling that, except for the important absence of political violence, there has not been a peace dividend for working-class areas. Instead, there have been cuts to public-sector jobs and services. This was significantly reflected the topping of the poll by Gerry Carroll of People Before Profit in Sinn Féin’s West Belfast heartland in the Assembly election.
McGuinness has an authority among the Republican base, and also among the wider Nationalist electorate. He has been able to gain at least tolerance for measures once thought unpalatable.
Clearly, Sinn Féin is planning its transition. However, all of the mooted future leaders – the Northerners John O’Dowd and Conor Murphy, the Southerners Pearse Doherty and the ascendant Mary Lou McDonald – will find holding the line among their own supporters much more difficult, at best: and particularly difficult if health issues force an unexpected transition in the North.
By Anton McCabe