Just two weeks ago, we were looking forward to getting away from the tit-for-tat government spats that were occurring during the presidential transition from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. Inauguration? What inauguration?
And then Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigned a week ago, which has triggered a new Northern Ireland election for March 2. Oh boy, just in time for my birthday.
It’s hard enough to describe the political situation in Northern Ireland during tranquil times. But the past two months on the island have seen a sharpening of the divide between the Democrat Unionist Party (DUP) and nationalist party Sinn Fein. The two parties had been running a coalition government in Northern Island under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday agreement, which ended decades of direct rule from London and is generally considered to mark the end of the Troubles. The resignation of one of the main ministers can trigger a snap election after one week in the absence of a replacement being named, which is what happened earlier today.
Try to keep up
Ostensibly at the heart of the debate is the renewable heat incentive (RHI), a scheme that Arlene Foster set up as energy minister before being named first minister last year before the May 2016 election. The terms of the scheme seem to have been quite generous, especially in light of drastically falling fuel prices. That’s not to say that all who received RHI funds—mainly farmers who also invested heavily in new technology—were doing anything wrong. But the terms were extremely favorable to those who participated in RHI, with a total potential outlay to taxpayers of nearly £500 million.
When details came to light, Sinn Fein asked Foster to step aside while an investigation took place. She refused, setting the stage for last week’s showdown. Fueling the flames, so the speak, during the so-called “ash for cash” scandal was the DUP communities minister’s decision to cut £50,000 out of a program to help Irish language students visit the Gaeltacht region of Donegal, where Irish still is spoken. This happened on the Friday before Christmas. Nollaig Shona, indeed!
The week between McGuinness’s resignation and the calling of early elections saw a flurry of he-said, she-said between the parties. The money for Irish language instruction, a key point for Sinn Feiners, was returned. Foster refused to step aside, and Sinn Fein declined to name a new first deputy unless she did.
But wait, there’s more!
A snap election suspends the power-sharing agreement for the first time in more than a decade, and Stormont, where the Northern Ireland Assembly meets, will cease operating in the next couple of weeks. Will it mean the reimposition of direct rule or could it tip political power in another direction?
A change in the constitution aimed at gradually reducing the size of the legislative body also means that there will be 18 fewer representatives, which could hurt fringe parties but could also rebalance power among the main political parties. In a world where virtually no one predicted Brexit or in the UK or Trump’s election in the US, we’ve all learned that anything is possible.
Finally, the new election puts in doubt Northern Ireland’s solution to the bedroom tax, which taxes people for having unused bedrooms in an effort to get them to downsize. Large carveouts were made for pensioners, but there just aren’t enough smaller homes to go around—despite the threat of taxation. The collapse of power-sharing also leaves this issue up in the air.
In announcing the mandated election, Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire expressed hope that the parties could “… find a way forward to secure the continuation of devolved government.”
Can you image power-sharing between Republicans and Democrats? When considering how this issue will affect Northern Ireland over the next six weeks, remember how far both sides have come over the past 15 years.