John Manley: Softening of DUP leader's tone suggests all is not lost

Arlene Foster's tone appears to have softened. Picture by Arthur Allison
Analysis by John Manley

ARLENE Foster's appeal outside the DUP has always been her pragmatism.

Much of her political career to date has been characterised by smart moves at the right times.

Her actions in recent weeks, however, have not chimed with this narrative.

She has been variously accused of being arrogant, stubborn and resorting to desperate measures in an effort to deflect blame from her role in the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme and the political crisis that has ensued.

Her immediate reaction yesterday to Sinn Féin's proposed terms of reference for an inquiry was typical of her recent demeanour. She responded to a question about whether she'd endorse the plan with a curt 'No'.

At that stage it confirmed suspicions we were heading for a collapse of the institutions and a possible election, as the rift between the two Stormont partners has deepened.

Sinn Féin continued to insist that Mrs Foster stand aside; the DUP leader refused to budge.

But at teatime a statement from the first minister dropped into journalists' inboxes that suggested there may yet be a way out of this impasse.

There wasn't obviously a shift in position but it did indicate a change in the first minister's previously combative tone.

Naturally, there were entire paragraphs dedicated to attacking her political opponents. However, the bit that mattered was Mrs Foster's general acceptance of Sinn Féin's inquiry proposals.

How close their terms of reference reflected those presented by the DUP before Christmas is not known because, despite requests, they have not been made public.

Nevertheless, the key component was the DUP leader's assertion that what had been tabled provided a "basis for taking an investigation forward".

Notably, that was preceded by the caveat "with the exception of the issue of stepping aside".

This remains the major sticking point and one that is potentially insurmountable without Stormont's collapse.

However, when all around is dark even the smallest chink of light gives hope.

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