Up in flames: the crisis in Northern Ireland

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THE NORTHERN Ireland power-sharing executive has gone up in flames. Emergency elections have been called following the resignation of Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness from his role as Deputy First Minister.

McGuinness cited First Minister Arlene Foster’s refusal to step down following a scandal surrounding the Renewable Heat Incentive as his motivation. A Unionist First Minister cannot remain in office without a Nationalist Deputy to balance power between the communities, and so the DUP’s Foster was also forced to step down from her role, triggering emergency elections.

The Northern Irish government has looked close to collapse before. Since its conception, the Stormont Executive has endured numerous scandals. It seems bizarre that the power-sharing government, whose mere existence was remarkable in itself, should be brought down by something as mundane as the Renewable Heat Incentive. The reality is that it was not the mismanagement of the Renewable Heat Incentive that has led to emergency elections in Northern Ireland; it is party politics.

The scheme was set up under the leadership of the DUP First Minister Arlene Foster when she was the Minister for Enterprise. It incentivised participants to burn the sustainable fuel of wood pellets by offering £1.60 in subsidies for every £1 spent. This created a ‘burn to earn’ culture, and examples have emerged of enterprising participants unnecessarily burning fuel to make a quick buck. In total this left the Northern Irish government around £490m out of purse. The blame has fallen at the door of the largest Unionist party, the DUP, as a department under their control oversaw the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme.

Arlene Foster has faced fierce criticism as the minister who oversaw the scheme. Foster has refused to resign even temporarily, a move which could potentially have averted the crisis. Instead the DUP leader went on the attack, insisting that she, a Unionist leader, would not be bossed about by Sinn Féin, and that misogyny motivates her critics. Mrs Foster and her party have refused to show any remorse for their role in the botched scheme, an arrogance which reflects the fact they have been effectively unchallenged as the largest party since 2007.

Sinn Féin are far from blameless in manufacturing this crisis. Instead of nominating a replacement to serve as Deputy Minister so that the issues could be resolved internally within Stormont, Sinn Féin deliberately dissolved the devolved assembly.

This move effectively leaves the fate of Northern Ireland in the hands of Westminster, and means that the community Sinn Féin represent (who voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union) have little voice when it comes to Brexit negotiations. Sinn Féin wish to appear tough on the DUP over the Renewable Heat Incentive, stating that it was “one scandal too far”, despite the fact that they had known about the mismanagement for a year.

While the DUP and Sinn Féin would be loath to admit any similarities, it is evident that they both put party interests above those of their voters. The collapse of Stormont is not about the money lost in the renewable heating scandal, but rather a continuation of the parties’ constant attempts to score points at each other’s expense.

Perhaps they have gone too far, and the electorate will take revenge for their inability to work out the issues. Maybe this election, as disruptive and unnecessary as it is, will bring change to Northern Ireland. What is more likely to happen is that the people of Northern Ireland will vote for who they have always voted for, motivated by the same old tribal fear of “the other side”. The DUP and Sinn Féin will remain the largest parties, and the Northern Irish Executive will stumble on as it has.

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