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Allison Morris: From defiant to conciliatory, Arlene Foster's media strategy backfired

Arlene Foster arrives at DUP HQ in east Belfast. Picture by Mal McCann 

ARLENE Foster's response to the RHI scandal has lurched from defiant to conciliatory, from Thatcherite 'The lady's not for turning' to Ban Ki-moon style diplomacy.

In her first real test of leadership since taking on the position, her handling of the crisis has been erratic, with a media strategy that has at times backfired.

Since the flaws in the green energy scheme were first linked to the former enterprise minister in October last year, she immediately went on the defensive, telling this paper she couldn't be across "every jot and tittle" of her brief.

Denying any wrongdoing was again the tactic when Jonathan Bell went rogue, forcing her to deny that DUP advisers prevented the closure of the RHI scheme.

That now infamous Stephen Nolan interview, when the First Minister appeared nervous and uncomfortable under questioning, was clearly ill-advised given that she had not yet seen the full extent of Bell's accusations and was on the back foot.

Growing calls for a full public inquiry and for Mrs Foster to stand aside were then met with outrage from the Fermanagh MLA.

Her appearance before a specially recalled assembly in December was characteristically defiant, with a verbal attack on opposition parties.

Following the Christmas recess Mrs Foster tried a change of tactic, claiming in a soft focus newspaper interview and a televised piece with Sky News that she was a victim of misogyny.

The first hint that the party was entering into election mode came when the First Minister referenced her childhood experiences as a victim of violence at the hands of the IRA.

Since then relations between the DUP and their Sinn Féin coalition partners have declined at a rapid rate, with Monday's resignation of Martin McGuinness signalling a dramatic end to a short and ill-fated working partnership.

From the hardline 'I will not be dictated to by republicans' to an 'At home with Arlene'-style address, posted late on Monday evening on her Facebook page, there have been constant changes in both attitude and language.

Then on Tuesday, the now former first minister appeared looking cheery and relaxed, taking questions from invited members of a mainly broadcast media at DUP headquarters in east Belfast.

The Irish News was not invited despite having asked for an interview earlier in the day. The News Letter and Press Association were also excluded.

There was again a change of direction, with Ms Foster saying that she now intended to ask for an investigation under the Inquiries Act, going further than what Sinn Fein had proposed.

She looked like a leader in control, dressed in a union flag scarf and seemingly open to last-hour solutions to save the institutions.

But those watching the latest media performance must surely have been left pondering why she didn't offer this at the start of the crisis, rather than in the final days of an almost certainly doomed administration.

 

 

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