By Stephen Bell
On Monday 16 January, following the resignation of Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister, the British government announced that there will be new elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly on 2 March. Events leading up to this have created the most serious political crisis in Ireland since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
The trigger for McGuiness’s resignation was the refusal of the First Minister, DUP leader Arlene Foster, to stand aside pending an independent investigation into the workings of an incentive scheme, the Renewable Heat Initiative (RHI). Set up by Foster in 2012, when she was Enterprise Minister, the scheme was intended to promote the use of more environmentally friendly fuels. But the scheme was badly designed and created a perverse incentive which meant that many businesses received more in subsidies than they paid in fuel. The scheme was heavily oversubscribed and created a commitment to an over-spend of £490m over the next twenty years. The scheme has since had cost controls introduced, and been closed.
An issue of corruption hangs over the whole affair. MLA Jonathan Bell, since suspended by the DUP, claims he was prevented from clamping down on RHI because two DUP special advisors had “extensive interests” in the poultry industry. BBC’s Stephen Nolan Show revealed that the biggest cluster of recipients for RHI is around Dungannon, County Tyrone – Arlene Foster’s constituency. Here there are 342 boilers, one in six of the total across the north. Cross-party calls for the publication of the beneficiaries of the scheme have been blocked by the DUP.
This scandal has been the immediate trigger for the collapse of the Executive. But breaking point has been reached because of the DUP’s behaviour over a number of years, overlaid and reinforced by Tory policy towards the north. For ten years the DUP has refused to implement the Good Friday/St Andrews commitment to have an Irish Language Act introduced. The DUP, and the Tory government, has refused to address the legacy issues arising from the past conflict – in particular, by refusing any examination of the role of British security forces. This is particularly distressing for relatives of those who died in “controversial killings”, with money for fresh inquests being withheld. On same sex marriage, the DUP has vetoed its introduction, despite a clear majority in the Assembly in favour. On austerity, the Tories insisted on carrying this through in the north, with the DUP accepting this.
These issues have demonstrated a refusal to accord parity of esteem to the nationalist community, and even to the people of the north as a whole. There is a real possibility that after 2 March there may not be a resumption of Stormont, if the DUP continues to defend the indefensible. Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Fein MLA, told the media: “Sinn Fein will only be part of the institutions which work and deliver for all the community. There can be no return to the status quo”.
Holding new Assembly elections only ten months after the last elections is a serious enough crisis in itself. But this has been further overlaid by the stance that the British government is taking on the impact of Brexit upon Ireland. The decision of the Tories to go for removing the UK from the single market and customs union will have a profound impact upon Ireland on both sides of the border. The Irish Department of Finance and ESRI jointly modelled the UK Brexit plan. The estimates are that Irish exports to Britain will fall by a third; total exports will be 4 per cent smaller; and 40,000 jobs will be lost in the south. GDP will be 3.5 per cent smaller than it would have been without Brexit, after five years; and 4 per cent smaller after ten years – worth E20bn over the decade.
Alongside this, exiting the single market and customs union will create a hard border on the island of Ireland, with a negative impact upon all areas of Irish life, including the Peace Process. This is why Sinn Fein and others are calling for the EU to grant “special status” to the north in the EU. Theresa May intends to proceed regardless of the fact that the north voted by 56 per cent to remain in the EU. Ireland has proved to have a majority on both sides of the border in favour of the EU. Yet the British government intends to demonstrate its traditional arrogance by ignoring both north and south majorities.
The Assembly elections will result in some change in the balance of parties. This will be a reduction in the number of MLAs from 108 to 90 – each constituency will now return 5 MLAs, as against 6 in 2016. It is unclear whether the strengthening of the right internationally will benefit the DUP, or whether the taint of corruption will damage its standing. There are going to be hard negotiations ahead.
In these circumstances the forthcoming Westminster Briefing by Sinn Fein will be of great interest. This takes place on Tuesday 24 January at 7pm in the Grimmond Room, Portcullis House – with Pat Doherty MP and Paul Maskey MP to address the event.