Northern Ireland’s Political Turmoil Could Not Come at a Worse Time
By: Jessica Ní Mhainín
On 16 January, the day before Theresa May was set to give her long-awaited Brexit speech, the government of Northern Ireland collapsed. With 56% of Northern Ireland’s 1.8 million people having voted to remain in the European Union on 23 June, one might be forgiven for assuming the political turmoil was Brexit-related.
But Northern Ireland’s political upheaval has been entirely of its own making. The government’s collapse stems from a Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme, set up in 2012 by the Northern Ireland’s Department for Enterprise with the aim of encouraging the use of eco-friendly fuels.
The scheme’s inherent flaw was that the incentives were uncapped — beneficiaries stood to earn £1.60 for every £1 of fuel they burned. The more fuel they burned the more money they earned, hence the scandal has been dubbed “cash for ash”. Now, unless mitigating measures can be implemented, the scheme looks set to cost the Northern Irish budget as much as £500 million.
The Northern Irish government, a devolved administration within the United Kingdom, is jointly led by a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister. They are nominated from the largest parties of each of the unionist (who want Northern Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom) and nationalist (who want Northern Ireland to join the Republic of Ireland) designations. Because governance is based on powersharing, the vacation of either post automatically renders the other ineffectual and can lead to the government’s collapse.
So when First Minister Arlene Foster became implicated in the mismanagement of the scheme in November 2016, political instability loomed large. Not only had Foster been Minister for Enterprise when the scheme was designed, but according to her Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) colleague, Minister for Enterprise Jonathan Bell, she prevented the closure of the botched scheme even after being advised of its defective nature.
When Foster refused to step aside to allow an investigation into the scheme to go ahead, Sinn Féin deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, resigned. Sinn Féin’s refusal to nominate a replacement triggered the government’s collapse a week later.
An investigation has yet to be carried out, but the DUP’s reluctance to release an official list of the beneficiaries has led to speculation that the scheme may have disproportionally benefitted unionists. Such speculation has been bolstered by the fact that some of those who are thus far known to have benefitted from the scheme have close links to the DUP.
Elections will be held on the 2 March and nonsectarian parties like Alliance, who currently hold less than 10% of seats, will be hoping to capitalize on the chagrin of DUP voters. But those familiar with the political landscape say that such a development would still be too radical for Northern Ireland’s divided society. Tommie Gorman, a correspondent who has been reporting on Northern Irish politics since 2001, has said that a “double revolution” would need to take place in order for the nonsectarian middle ground to take hold.
Sinn Féin, in a bid to profit from the DUP’s weakened state, is demanding concessions before going back into government with the DUP. They want a Marriage Equality Act and the legal recognition of the Irish language (which would allow for its use in courts and in government). But with the DUP insisting that it will never concede on such issues, Sinn Féin’s demands have only served to intensify the political deadlock.
In a recent radio interview, DUP politician Sir Jeffery Donaldson said, “anyone who thinks that Humpty Dumpty will be put back together immediately after the election is deluding themselves”. If, after the elections, both sides are unable to form a government, direct rule from Westminster will be inevitable.
Direct rule is already a highly contentious issue in Northern Ireland but with a hard Brexit on the horizon, its imposition would be particularly bitter. Speaking from a conference on the implications of Brexit for Northern Ireland, Dr. Katy Hayward, political sociologist at Queen’s University Belfast, said that the Northern Irish government’s lack of leadership on Brexit and the “apparent vacuum” in terms of planning is “very worrying at this critical time”.
The biggest issue for Northern Ireland is the border. As it stands, the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is largely invisible but plans are already under way as to how the western border of the EU can be controlled.
For Sinn Féin, whose primary political objective is the unification of Ireland, the imposition of a hard border would be a huge step backwards. The Belfast Agreement (1998), a significant step in bringing peace to Northern Ireland, states that it is the entitlement of every person born on the island of Ireland to be part of the Irish nation and claim Irish citizenship. In asserting their right to Irish citizenship, those resident in Northern Ireland will continue to be citizens of the European Union, even after the United Kingdom’s withdrawal. Placing a border between Irish (and thus European) citizens North and South would give rise to significant tensions.
Maintaining the open border by carrying out border control between Great Britain and the island of Ireland has been suggested as a potential alternative. But this would undermine the DUP’s raison d’être — it would weaken the union between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, undermining the British identity of the unionist community.
The issue of the border strikes close to the heart of the respective cultural identities of nationalists and unionists in Northern Ireland and could ultimately destabilise the peace process. With Article 50 due to be triggered shortly after the election, it remains to be seen whether Northern Irish parties can overcome their differences and avoid a slide back to the instability of the past.