The woman behind the turmoil of Brexit is facing her biggest test tomorrow – not Theresa May but Arlene Foster.
The DUP leader made weekend headlines in the Brexit-supporting UK press, heaping praise on Theresa May’s demand for more respect from the EU after the Salzburg summit debacle.
But back in Northern Ireland, Ms Foster is about to face fireworks of her own – summoned to re-appear before an inquiry about the heating scandal that almost collapsed her government and could have cost the Northern Ireland taxpayer half-a-billion pounds.
The DUP leader first appeared before the “cash-for-ash” inquiry in April, but her earlier account will now face far greater scrutiny in light of contradictory evidence from witnesses like Jonathan Bell, minister at the Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment which oversaw the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme until May 2016.
The RHI scheme was intended to encourage businesses to switch from fossil fuels to green alternatives like biomass but the cost to the taxpayer spiralled out of control as firms realised how lucrative the incentives were. The scandal caused a political row which culminated in the resignation of deputy first minister Martin McGuinness in January 2017 and the collapse of the power-sharing government at Stormont. So the ramifications of this week’s evidence for Arlene Foster’s position as DUP leader are enormous.
Earlier this month Jonathan Bell told the inquiry that he described the scheme to Northern Ireland’s First Minister as “folly” but that she “ordered” him to keep it open so she could consult further with industry.
The former Stormont Minister told the inquiry: “I thought that was totally unreasonable because we had a scheme that was out of control.” Mr Bell completed his two days of evidence by saying he had sacrificed his political career to stop the overspend. “My only motivation was those hundreds of millions of pounds to get back into the health service and our education system.”
It was damning stuff. But damning enough to topple a formidably tough politician? Many expect that despite being obviously complicit in mismanagement and perhaps corruption, Arlene Foster will brazen her way through. But her authority will be further weakened – recently an opinion poll found DUP supporters were amongst the 52% of NI voters who now prefer re-unification to a hard Brexit. According to the popular Stephen Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster, a DUP source said the pro-Brexit leader is in a “dark place” because of the RHI scandal and it was “50/50” whether she will continue as party leader.
But Arlene Foster’s difficulties don’t just arise from the heating scandal. According to Leave voting commentator Alex Kane writing in the unionist Newsletter: “Brexit, demographics, the rise of Sinn Fein, the loss of the unionist majority in the assembly, almost two years without a government, and the looming celebration of NI’s centenary in 2021. Any one of those issues represents a major challenge; collectively, they represent a full-scale assault. So, it seems essential to me that we have a strong leader. I’m just not sure that Arlene Foster is now that leader. I think her responses and throwaway lines have actually galvanised broad-based nationalism and pushed new votes into Sinn Fein’s camp.”
Commentators outside the Unionist tradition are also critical. Journalist and author Malachi O’Doherty says: “The greatest outrage is that Theresa May takes Arlene Foster as speaking for the whole of NI, yet her party speaks for one third of the Electorate in a region which voted Remain. We have cards we could be playing now, in support of that Remain vote: our semi detached membership of the UK, our right to vote ourselves back into the EU through a border poll, the fact we retain the right to EU citizenship after Brexit with Irish passports, and the chance to construct an argument for a referendum on Special Status inside the EU. Yet none of these arguments is being advanced.”
You could add to the charge sheet Arlene Foster’s support for Northern Ireland’s draconian abortion laws, which the UK Supreme Court say breaches the human rights of women, and her decision not to meet Pope Francis in Dublin this summer or send a party representative in her place.
In short, public opinion on Northern Ireland’s social and constitutional future seems to be changing rapidly, but its political leader is not for turning, changing or listening.
What has that got to do with Theresa May, Brexit and prospects for Scottish Independence? Arlene Foster’s intransigence has bound the hands of the Prime Minister so that she is also unable to adapt her position on the core question of Ireland and the border – unless of course the Tory leader frees herself from the troublesome DUP connection via a November general election.
Weekend rumours about that strategy show how desperate Theresa May’s post-Salzburg position has become, mainly because of Arlene Foster’s absolute opposition to a border in the North Sea.
But can ditching the DUP resolve Theresa May’s Brexit impasse? Not really. The Irish border is the most difficult problem, but the core Brexit deal is still stymied by Britain’s desire to have single market access without accepting freedom of movement. That circle simply cannot be squared, whatever happens to the Irish border.
Of course, there’s also a very high chance that another snap general election will result in a Labour or a Labour plus SNP victory. Naturally Jeremy Corbyn and Nicola Sturgeon are giving little away at the moment. As politicians it makes sense for them to wait and watch the Tories disintegrate before making a move. But SNP involvement in any future Labour government would have to be based on calling off or postponing Brexit and giving Scotland an opt-out or a second independence referendum.
That may be why the UK Labour leader didn’t rule out such a vote last week, even though Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard has backed himself into the absurd position of arguing that a new UK manifesto will veto indyref2 in all circumstances. Of course if Nicola Sturgeon is in a power-sharing situation on the back of a another general election, and demands anything less from Labour, her own supporters will be acutely disappointed. In short, all eyes should be on Belfast tomorrow as the first domino unlocking Brexit potentially tumbles.