For those of us who have been monitoring the Northern Ireland Assembly for the last 20 years or so, the starting assumption was that the politicians would be on a steep learning curve for maybe five years before properly settling into the routines of governance. We expected and anticipated the teething problems; after all, Northern Ireland hadn’t had a fully functioning government of its own since March 1972 and had grown used to the Northern Ireland Office and shifting teams of fly-in-and-fly-out-again ministers making all the decisions for us. We also expected and anticipated the regular stand-offs and showdowns when the DUP and Sinn Féin cut their own power-sharing deal in 2007, knowing that there was no love between the key players.
But what the RHI inquiry uncovered, in painstaking detail over 114 hearing days, was what might be described as the Star Trek approach to devolution: “It’s government, Jim, but not as we know it.” At every level there was evidence of serial ineptitude and the sort of governing, administrative practices which would not have been out of place in Freedonia, the diminutive, bankrupt country ruled over by Rufus T Firefly (Groucho Marx) in Duck Soup.
What had begun as a potentially mind-numbingly dull, nerdy inquiry to “investigate, enquire into and report on the Non-Domestic Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, [including] its design, governance, implementation and operation, and efforts to control the costs of that scheme, from its conception in 2011 to the conclusion of the inquiry” turned into something else entirely. Indeed it turned into something that was considered ‘sexy’ enough to earn water-cooler status across all communities and classes in Northern Ireland.
That was because the DUP was at the centre of it; a party which had put the never-on-a-Sunday Paisley and pulpit politics behind it and built a reputation for good governance, talented players on the front benches and in the party backrooms, and a willingness to take risks for the sake of the peace process. Yet what emerged was a portrayal of DUP ministers who didn’t read their briefs, special advisers who were a law unto themselves, internal feuds, the leaking of emails from the party to embarrass junior civil servants, a dash of ministerial drunkenness in New York and a dislike for record-keeping on key decisions. It was hugely embarrassing for the party and played out against a background of the Assembly not sitting and the DUP trying to secure a Brexit deal that would avoid new border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
The DUP had no idea how Sir Patrick Coghlin, the chairman of the inquiry, would interpret all of this. It looked bad and the party knew it looked bad. A damning indictment would be devastating, particularly for party leader Arlene Foster. When the inquiry ended (in November 2018) and the months ticked away until publication, the DUP suffered two huge blows: Boris Johnson agreed a deal that included a border in the Irish Sea and the party lost two of its 10 MPs in the general election last December – including deputy leader Nigel Dodds – along with its role as kingmaker at Westminster. Another blow, in the shape of a ‘bad’ RHI report, would have forced Foster’s resignation.
Yet a few months ago she probably received what is sometimes known as a ‘Maxwellisation’ letter, in which relevant witnesses are shown the specific extracts of reports relating to them. So she would have had a fair idea that the report, while critical of her, was unlikely to be catastrophic in career terms (which may have been a key factor in her willingness to lead the DUP back into the Executive with Sinn Féin on January 11th).
On Friday, Sir Patrick concluded that she should “not have signed . . . a draft regulatory impact assessment” but softened the blow by saying her officials “should not have presented” her with it. He also said: “Any minister presenting the Assembly with legislation should sufficiently read and familiarise themselves with that legislation and ensure an adequate evidence base.” But again the blow was softened by the comment: “The arrangement between . . . minister Foster and her special adviser concerning the division of responsibility between them for reading, analysing and digesting important documents was ineffective.” All very embarrassing for a former solicitor. But nothing fatal.
Foster responded quickly in a statement: “I am pleased that there has been no finding to support those who alleged improper motivation or indeed in some cases that I, or the party, was motivated by some financial considerations in the actions or omissions that took place . . . I intend to study the report in greater detail and to make a fuller statement when the Assembly discusses the issue on Monday.”
All of which means that the Assembly will, for now at least, survive. From the unionist (and not just the DUP) perspective, that is important. Johnson’s majority and his unreliability (DUP MP Jim Shannon noted: “He would take your Alsatian dog for a walk, then come back an hour later with a Chihuahua and tell you it was alright”) on issues such as the Irish Sea border worries pro-Brexit unionists as much as those who voted Remain.
If nothing else the Assembly gives unionism a power base of sorts and that could be useful if Northern Ireland ends up with the sea border, or if Johnson goes for the no-deal option in December. And right now most unionists would prefer a local health minister rather than one based in Westminster.
So, Foster lives to fight another day. But after serial blows to her party since the loss of the unionist majority in the Assembly in 2017, presently an ever-widening chasm with Sinn Féin on the strategy to deal with coronavirus, and with the celebrations for Northern Ireland’s centenary just months away, she won’t be able to relax any time soon. Or make any more mistakes.
Alex Kane is a commentator based in Belfast. He was formerly director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party