McGuinness turns down heat on Foster after confidence vote

Despite calls for First Minister to stand aside classic Stormont kick-to-touch seems likely

 First Minister Arlene Foster and her DUP colleagues were able to ensure the no confidence vote over the “cash for ash” controversy would not  succeed. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

First Minister Arlene Foster and her DUP colleagues were able to ensure the no confidence vote over the “cash for ash” controversy would not succeed. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

 

Those attacking Arlene Foster just “want to generate heat”, the DUP’s Lord (Maurice) Morrow said during a Stormont debate on a no confidence motion in the First Minister.

Though unintended, the comment got an ironic laugh considering the subject was the “cash for ash” renewable heat incentive scheme, where users were paid £1.60 for every £1 of wood pellets that they burned.

It was a case of “more heat than light”, Lord Morrow managed to add against the barracking from Opposition MLAs on Monday.

It was a hectic day in Stormont.

There were two walkouts from the Assembly chamber, the DUP speaker Robin Newton’s impartiality was called into question and Foster apologised for the monumental flaws in the scheme but otherwise was dismissive of the “kamikaze” attempt at a “constitutional coup d’etat”. The independent socialist and journalist Eamonn McCann described the events, saying this is “la la land”, and asked for a Christmas present in the shape of an election.

But there will be no election, at least not yet.

Lord Morrow was correct: there was plenty of heat but no light after a day of some drama and farce. And there was no resolution either: Martin McGuinness, the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP, Alliance and the Greens wanted Foster to stand down but speaker after speaker from the DUP ranks insisted she would not be going anywhere because she has a job to do.

In his contribution, Sinn Féin’s John O’Dowd said there were “suspicions” that it was DUP supporters who availed of what Traditional Unionist Voice MLA Jim Allister accurately described as a “runaway” scheme.

But the fact is no one has yet provided evidence of corruption and cronyism. There is plenty of bureaucratic and political incompetence for sure, but incompetence is not necessarily a resigning matter.

The DUP has insisted there is no corruption and as long as that remains the case, Foster can survive this crisis.

Interpretations

Indeed, if one can interpret McGuinness’s various comments correctly, some of the heat already may have been taken out of this row.

Earlier on Monday, McGuinness was insistent that Foster had to step back. “The First Minister should stand aside to allow the investigation to take place in as conducive an atmosphere as possible,” he said. That seemed clear enough.

It was a call echoed in strong terms by other Sinn Féiners at Stormont. Yet later in the day, McGuinness appeared to be softening his position. To push matters forward he told UTV he wanted three things: an independent investigation into the scheme, action to reduce the potential £400 million (€476m) overspend; and for Foster to “reflect” on his calls for her to stand down.

Interestingly, however, he said the latter request was merely “friendly advice”.

At the weekend “grave consequences” would follow if she didn’t resign. Now it was friendly advice? Throughout the day it sounded like a demand that could bring down Stormont and trigger elections, but by the time McGuinness got in front of the UTV camera he seemed to have retreated, in tone and in word. That made matters less clear.

On Friday, McGuinness and Gerry Adams made a dangerous play by calling on Foster to stand aside. It sounded like an ultimatum: if the First Minister didn’t go then it seemed implicit that the Deputy First Minister would go, and Northern Ireland would face a winter election.

Of course, Foster said she was going nowhere and her party rallied stoutly behind her. Foster lost the no confidence motion by 39 votes to 36 but it didn’t matter because for such a motion to be carried, it required a majority of unionists and nationalists to vote in favour. But the DUP as the dominant unionist party had the numbers to ensure that could not happen.

McGuinness issued a statement after the vote repeating his call for Foster to take gardening leave. Yet Sinn Féin abstained on the basis that it has tabled its own motion for January on the fiasco that is “cash for ash”.

Foster has conceded on an independent inquiry and efforts at financial clawback, so the question now is will Sinn Féin ultimately decide, as the Meat Loaf song says, that two out of three ain’t bad?

What we saw at Stormont on Monday was classic peace process politics: rather than deal with a crisis now, kick it to touch. It was Sinn Féin and the DUP buying time, and one suspects there was tick-tacking between the two sides to lower the temperature.