A motion of no confidence in First Minister Arlene Foster was vetoed by the Democratic Unionist Party today, but not before other parties in the Stormont Assembly staged a theatrical walk-out from a chamber in which they are powerless to effect political change without DUP support.
Despite a majority of Assembly members, 39 to 36, voting to exclude her as First Minister for six months over her handling of the “Renewable Heat Incentive” (RHI) scheme -- popularly known as ‘cash for ash’ -- Foster is to remain in the role.
Under the rules of the devolved legislature, no contested motion can pass without the support of the DUP, the largest unionist party. However Sinn Fein, who are DUP’s partners in the devolved government, drew sharp criticism from the opposition parties when they chose to abstain in any event.
But a cooling of the normally close relationship between Foster and Sinn Fein’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness was illustrated when McGuinness insisted she had no authority to make her statement today. As his and Ms Foster’s office is a joint one, he said her statement did not have his approval.
There was some procedural wrangling before Foster delivered an aggressive justification of her handling of a hugely controversial scheme. Sinn Fein and the opposition parties alike walked out of the Assembly chamber as Foster began.
“She is speaking in a personal capacity and not in her role as First Minister,” Mr McGuinness said, and again called for her to stand aside pending a private judicial investigation of a scheme which became a feeding frenzy for insiders and cronies.
His protests were dismissed out of hand by Foster. The walkout from the chamber by Sinn Fein and the opposition parties also had not effect, and she went on to deliver a self-serving tirade to the cheers of her own party members, mocking the opposition as “irrelevant and impotent”.
“I am here, I will be staying here,” she said, adding that she was determined that “this mess” will be cleared up.
The SDLP later said in a statement: “As of this moment, Arlene Foster no longer enjoys the support of the Assembly as First Minister. The First Minister lost today’s confidence vote, even in spite of a disappearing act from Sinn Fein who talked tough but went missing when it counted.”
Sinn Fein described the SDLP motion as “blatant political opportunism” and said they were bringing their own motion to the Assembly in January. “The real test for the SDLP is whether they will support our motion which calls on Arlene Foster to stand aside and the establishment of an independent investigation which is robust and time-limited and led by a judicial figure,” they said.
Mr McGuinness warned of “grave consequences” if Ms Foster does not stand down. Sinn Fein representatives have declined to explain what these consequences would be, but some suggested it could involve Mr McGuinness resigning as Deputy First Minister in order to force an Assembly vote to re-elect a First Minister and Deputy First Minister. In such circumstances, Assembly elections are required to follow. It is thought Mr McGuinness, who is suffering from poor health and whose reputation has suffered collateral damage by successive DUP corruption scandals, may also choose to quit politics at this juncture.
He admitted that what took place at Stormont today as “a shambles”.
“Our institutions should not have to endure another day like this,” he said. “The RHI scandal is a massive waste of public funds and the issue will not go away. There is a need to restore public confidence in the Assembly and the political institutions.”
Independent socialist Eamonn McCann said it was time to call Assembly elections. “We are in la-la land, please can we have an election.”