The maladministration of a renewable energy scheme in Stormont could be about to plunge Northern Ireland into fresh elections and potentially either scupper or ease Theresa May’s plans to trigger Article 50 by the end of March.
The resignation of deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness yesterday triggers a seven-day period for Sinn Fein to nominate a successor – something the party has indicated it won’t be doing, despite calls for talks. After that it will be up to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to call fresh Assembly elections.
How has it got to this point?
McGuinness’ resignation has been prompted by the so-called ‘cash for ash’ scandal, which has been rumbling on in Northern Ireland politics for a number of months now. The scheme was set up by Arlene Foster, who until McGuinness’ resignation was serving as First Minister (the two posts being coterminous).
The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme, designed to subsidise and incentivise non-domestic properties to use renewable sources, has massively overrun and will cost Northern Ireland taxpayers £490 million and counting.
This is largely due to a lack of cost controls imposed on the scheme when it was being set up – something, curiously, that was built into the GB scheme on which the Northern Ireland fund was based.
Why did McGuinness resign?
Different theories have been mooted by political opponents as to why McGuinness chose to resign. Ultimately, his response has been driven by Foster’s uncompromising stance and by the unique dynamics of Northern Ireland’s political structures.
From the outset of this scandal, Foster has refused to temporarily step aside from her post – something that McGuinness himself and three First Ministers have done before – or to establish an inquiry into the matter.
Just before Christmas, the Assembly debated a no-confidence motion in Foster. This motion won the support of a majority of MLAs, but crucially it did not carry majorities within both community designations as required under the Assembly’s rules.
The political response to the whole episode has been coloured by the choice made by the UUP and SDLP after last year’s election not to join the Executive.
Until last year, Northern Ireland’s system of mandatory coalition saw most political parties choosing to share the spoils of government.
For years, commentators and politicians have called for the formation of an official opposition to hold the Executive to account. For the UUP and SDLP it politically made sense to do so after last year’s elections.
Once the leading lights for their respective political communities, they have lagged behind the bigger beasts for well over a decade. Moving into opposition allows both parties to challenge their competitors, which is exactly what has happened in the ‘cash for ash’ scandal.
From the outset, the pace has largely been set by the SDLP’s leader Colum Eastwood. Not wanting to be outdone, Sinn Fein have chosen to bring the Executive down from within.
What could this mean for Brexit?
The Supreme Court is currently considering whether the UK’s devolved assemblies need to approve the triggering of Article 50. If judges decide this is the case, Brexit could be put on hold pending the outcome of Northern Ireland’s elections.
Should the Assembly be required to vote on Brexit it is almost certain that Sinn Fein and the SDLP would force the vote to take place on a ‘cross-community’ basis, meaning it would require majority support from both unionist and nationalist MLAs – the same mechanism that saved Foster’s head in December.
With Sinn Fein and the SDLP strongly in favour of EU membership, the triggering of Article 50 could potentially be stopped by the Assembly.
There is one way out of all this for the UK Government. It is up to James Brokenshire as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to call fresh elections. If he were instead to suspend Northern Ireland’s institutions – as is his power – he could personally approve the triggering of Article 50 on Northern Ireland’s behalf.
What could this mean for Northern Ireland?
Voter turnout at last year’s Assembly elections hit a record low, and that record could now be surpassed. Many voters will wonder why MLAs have not been able to address this episode without resorting to a second election in a year.
The political landscape has not changed since the last election six months ago, but with the number of MLAs set to be reduced from 108 to 90 each party will have vulnerable seats – particularly the DUP, SDLP and Sinn Fein who could lose five seats each. Overall, nationalists have ten seats that look vulnerable compared to six for unionists.
If, as expected, the DUP and Sinn Fein are returned as the largest parties it remains to be seen how Sinn Fein would respond. The party could choose to move past the RHI scandal. Or it could refuse to join government with Foster serving as First Minister, prolonging the crisis, putting the future of the devolved institutions in doubt and necessitating inter-party and inter-government talks.
In the longer term while the development of an official opposition in Northern Ireland has been welcomed by some, the system will have to mature further to accommodate more typical political scandals and crises than Northern Ireland is used to.