Stormont political crisis - Stubborness an own goal for Foster

“ALL political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.”
Stormont political crisis - Stubborness an own goal for Foster

The words of the late British politician Enoch Powell could easily apply to the outgoing First Minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster.

Her handling of the fallout from the North’s now infamous Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is a perfect example of an own goal. Within a short period of time she has managed to turn a personal difficulty into an existential political crisis that could have widespread repercussions not only for the peace process but also for Britain’s Brexit negotiations.

Her stubbornness is what got her the job of leader of the Democratic Unionist Party in the first place as she was seen to be tough and steadfast on identity and culture, which are hugely important to unionists.

That stubbornness could now be the reason for her downfall as it prevented her from stepping aside temporarily as first minister while an inquiry was held into the scandal. This was something her predecessor, Peter Robinson, had no trouble doing when he faced a similar inquiry.

Unless her desperate attempt to woo Sinn Féin back to the negotiating table succeeds, it is hard to imagine that she will ever be first minister again. In that event, she is also likely to be replaced as party leader.

Unlike most political parties on this island, the power structure within the DUP is built from the bottom up. Rank and file members of the party have enormous power and are not afraid to wield it, as the late Ian Paisley learned to his cost when he was ousted in 1998. His perceived over-friendly relationship with Martin McGuinness meant he had become an electoral liability and had to go. If someone of his power and fortitude could be ousted, no future leader would be safe.

The Irish and British governments have said they are determined to explore if any initiative can be taken to avoid the triggering of Assembly elections. Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire met political leaders in the North yesterday to discuss the crisis at Stormont.

However, given his lacklustre performance on Tuesday in the House of Commons, it is hard to imagine him having the persuasive charm of some of his predecessors or the ability to knock heads together and convince all parties in the North that a fresh election is in nobody’s interest.

Northern Ireland has enjoyed almost ten years of unbroken devolved government, the longest such period since the 1960s. That only came about through negotiations that took almost as long to come to fruition.

Lasting political change takes a long time in Northern Ireland. It took nine years following the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement for the IRA to declare a ceasefire and a further four years before the Good Friday Agreement was signed in April 1998. It was not until March 2007 that a fully functioning assembly and executive was achieved.

It would be a pity if one politician’s stubbornness was the cause of undoing all that hard work.

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