Alex Kane: We are now witnessing the ugly side of ‘normal' politics

Alex Kane

Alex Kane

Alex Kane is an Irish News columnist and political commentator and a former director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party.

DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster. Picture by Mal McCann
DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster. Picture by Mal McCann DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster. Picture by Mal McCann

ABOUT 18 months ago I tailed off my Irish News column with my usual optimism: "Get used to it, folks, this is as good as it gets." Boy, was I wrong.

So wrong, in fact, that I almost long for those good old days when it was a Unionist vs. Republican, or Protestant vs. Catholic spat that made us bang our heads against a brick wall in despair. The good old days when they spent so much time arguing over flags, parades, culture and creationism that they didn't really have time to interfere too much in how their department was run. The good old days when headlines were dominated by gay cakes and Gregory Campbell's 'curry my yoghurt.' The good old days when we longed for that mythical beast known as 'normal politics.'

Well, the DUP and Sinn Féin promised us 'normal politics' when they set up their 'ourselves alone' executive a few months ago. Martin and Arlene even wrote a joint article about how they weren't interested in gimmicks and grandstanding; instead: "While others decided to duck the challenges and retreat to the opposition benches we are getting on with the work - proud of our achievements to date including, despite budget pressures, having found extra money to invest in key frontline services."

So far, their version of normal politics has included a leaked memo confirming that the already controversial Social Investment Fund requires a minimum extra input of £13m to, "increase the budget and delivery period for SIF to allow full delivery of projects." Apparently the additional financial requirement has been generated largely by unforeseen costs for the capital projects. Or, as the memo puts it: "Whilst every effort is being taken to manage project costs, there are factors beyond the department's control which can result in the need for additional funding." Fair enough, but if the factors really are beyond the department's control then why do we need to find out about the problem by way of a leaked memo?

And then there's the Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI) saga. If the implementation of the scheme had been handed over to a bunch of inebriated, innumerate, deaf monkeys, I'm not sure that they could have done the job any worse than those tasked to do it. Mind you, Arlene Foster makes a good point when she denies accusations of being asleep at the wheel; because, judging by the interview she gave to the BBC on Monday, she wasn't even in the car for most of the time.

Arlene Foster speaks to the Irish News in October about the RHI scheme:

Here's what I don't understand. Why didn't she just open her interview with a formal statement: "This is a cock-up of monumental proportions, for which I accept responsibility. I have asked my officials for a detailed report of everything that happened, including the concerns raised by the whistleblower on more than one occasion. I will also ask the business office to ensure that a few hours will be set aside, when the assembly returns after the recess, for a formal statement from me and questions from the opposition and other parties. We promised good and transparent government. More important, we promised responsibility and accountability."

But no, she couldn't bring herself to do that (even though she has now been forced to concede a special sitting next week). No apology. No mea culpa. No shouldering the blame. Yet quite happy to point the finger at 'energy consultants,' her own officials and the UUP and SDLP - and not forgetting the media.

Of course, if this had been any other minister from any other department she would have unleashed her backbench wolves and allowed them to orchestrate pitchfork and rope howls of outrage. And in refusing to accept responsibility from the outset she has left herself open to the drip, drip series of new accusations that just keep on coming. For someone who is generally regarded as a very safe pair of hands and a very good performer, she has done herself no favours at all.

Will she survive? At the time of writing (although this story changes so quickly that anything is possible by Friday morning) the odds remain in her favour. There is no evidence of an internal DUP revolt against her; she has a Petition of Concern available if a motion of confidence is tabled; and, so far, Sinn Féin hasn't put in the boot. They may be waiting until all the facts are known, or they may reckon that a favour earned is a favour returned. Forcing her out would result in a crisis and an early election, neither of which they want.

Anyway, this is what 'normal' politics may look like. Ugly. Secretive. Buck-passing. Arse-saving. Back-stabbing. Money-squandering. Inept. Stupidity-on-stilts awful. Although, as I'm sure Arlene will tell us at some point; "Sure it's still better than the bad old days of violence and instability." Hmm. But hey, never forget; get used to it, folks, this is as good as it gets.