Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster has been facing heat, pun intended, over her handling of the RHI scandal. The RHI scandal concerns a renewable energy scheme that was set up in 2012 to lower greenhouse gas emissions. The scheme was the responsibility of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) and the minister responsible was Arlene Foster. The questions that people are asking are whether or not the scheme was an example of incompetence- and as such the person in change shouldn’t be First Minister- corruption, or unavoidable. The scandal is the largest financial cock-up in the history of devolution because it came in £490 million over budget. Unfortunately Foster has now claimed that calls for her resignation, even though she is clearly culpable, are misogynistic, but what she’s actually doing is seeking an electoral advantage.
So what’s actually going on? Although I have fundamental political disagreements with the First Minister, she’s an intelligent woman and so wouldn’t say this without thinking it through. I believe there a two things at play here, both of which are electoral.
The first is in relation to the old green-orange divide in Northern Irish politics. Even though she has been asked to step down by Sinn Féin, the SDLP, Alliance, the TUV, the UUP, and the Northern Irish Green Party, Foster is talking as if Sinn Féin are the only ones asking for her to go. In an interview on Sky News, Foster said that Sinn Féin were on a “party political mission” to have her replaced and to weaken the Union.
This is a clear attempt to obfuscate and confuse the issue. She is attempting, unsuccessfully I might add, to portray calls for her resignation as a Sinn Féin plan which is ludicrous considering that she oversaw the RHI scheme as a minister and it was nearly £500 million over budget. The reason she is doing this is to get her party united so that if there is an early assembly election the DUP can deride Sinn Féin as dastardly political tricksters.
By dressing up criticism as based on gender Foster is essentially trying to sidestep the issue and preserve her position as head of the DUP and First Minister of Northern Ireland. If calls for her resignation over the RHI scandal can be written off as misogyny then the only tangible thing that could cause her resignation can be put behind her and she will be First Minister for the foreseeable future.
As has been pointed out by a series of female politicians, the calls for her resignation are not to do with her ownership of a uterus but her appalling handling of the scheme. SDLP MLA Nichola Mallon said “this has absolutely nothing to do with Arlene Foster being a woman […] this is about incompetence with possible corruption and with unquestionable arrogance from the minister at the heart of it”.
But the reason this matters is that it diminishes the struggles of women in Northern Ireland when politicians hide behind false claims of misogyny. Activists who are fighting against ingrained economic and cultural inequalities deal with real cases of sexism day in day out, and they don’t need me to tell you that calling for someone’s resignation is not misogynistic. As Alliance Party leader Naomi Long so eloquently put it: “to suggest that wanting to hold women to the same level of accountability as their male counterparts is in some way sexist or misogynistic is a nonsense, in fact to hold them to a lesser standard would be sexism and misogyny”. I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Arlene Foster’s handling of RHI scandal has been appalling and although I haven’t been following the story as others who have covered the scandal, the fact that parties from across the political spectrum are calling for her to stand aside must mean something. She is desperately trying to write off criticism as nationalists acting up or sexism, but in reality she is ginning up her base so that they will come out to support the DUP in the event of an early election. The First Minister’s comments are reckless, and her handling of this scandal has been useless. She should step down and a full public inquiry should be held immediately.