Amid a scandal over a botched renewable heating scheme, the Stormont-based power-sharing institutions collapsed on 16 January, sparking new elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly. The immediate trigger for the latest crisis was the resignation on 9 January of the Deputy First Minister, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness.
In resigning, McGuinness automatically deposed the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) First Minister Arlene Foster and paved the way for a new round of elections to the devolved Assembly. In his resignation statement, McGuinness cited DUP “arrogance” as a motivation for ending the decade-long experiment in power-sharing between Sinn Fein and the DUP. This is a reference to Foster’s refusal to temporarily stand down without prejudice to allow an investigation into the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme, which was introduced on her watch as a minister in 2012.
The scheme, which is based on a wider UK initiative to reduce carbon emissions, subsidises businesses and other non-domestic energy users to install renewable heat technologies. For every £1 spent on fuel, recipients receive £1.60 from Stormont. Unlike in the rest of the UK, the Northern Ireland version of the RHI has no capped upper limit, leading to widespread allegations of abuse and corruption. Liabilities to the taxpayer are now predicted to be in the area of half a billion pounds over the next two decades.
Belying the DUP’s claims of a conspiracy to undermine unionism, Sinn Fein tried hard to get its partner in government off the hook, abstaining on a vote of no-confidence in the Assembly before the Christmas recess, and issuing only lukewarm calls for an investigation. As public outrage mounted, and under pressure from the republican rank-and-file, Sinn Fein finally decided to call on Foster to stand down, before giving her a final push with McGuinness’s resignation.
Sinn Fein’s position reflects the end of a crucial phase of post-Good Friday Agreement (GFA) politics in Northern Ireland and a shift in republican strategy. RHI was only the trigger for a widespread feeling that republicans, McGuinness especially, made a series of real and symbolic concessions to unionism — signing up in support of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), and meeting the Queen to name but two. In response, the DUP’s sectarian truculence has only increased with the election of Foster as First Minister, as the DUP increasingly mocked the minority community’s national and cultural aspirations. Nationalists have become frustrated by what are seen as diminishing returns from Sinn Fein’s participation in government.
Widely seen as the last straw was the DUP-instigated cut, on the day before Christmas Eve, of the Líofa bursary scheme to enable poor students to study in Irish-speaking areas. Evidence that the DUP has over-reached itself was provided when the money was mysteriously “found” for the bursaries in the wake of McGuinness’s resignation.
The post-GFA system institutionalised the sectarian blocs in Northern Irish politics, incentivising parties to compete to best represent “their” side in the dividing the spoils. In 2007, after several years of stop-start government and long periods of Direct Rule from Westminster, the DUP and Sinn Fein came together for the first time to share power as the two largest parties. Yet, sectarian tension did not dissipate and now the system is in deadlock once again. This time, McGuinness stressed in his resignation that there will be “no return to the status quo”, signalling that Sinn Fein will require major concessions from unionism and the British government before it will countenance returning to government in Stormont. This potentially re-opens the question of governmental structures which was ostensibly settled by the GFA and 2007’s St Andrew’s Agreement.
The election is unlikely to fundamentally upset the sectarian balance of power but what comes afterwards is unpredictable and Northern Ireland could be set for a prolonged period of negotiations and instability. Meanwhile, voters in the North become increasingly alienated with a political system widely associated with corruption and which continues to implement Tory cuts and attacks on living conditions.
As Gerry Carroll, the People Before Profit Assembly member for West Belfast put it: “RHI goes to the heart of the rotten politics of the Executive. People are sleeping rough on our streets. Food banks are reporting a record number of service users. And across West Belfast, workers and community groups have had to face wage freezes and job cuts, as politicians tell them that there simply is no money left.
“But there is money. £600 million was found to literally burn. It was always a question of priorities.”