Ed Balls speaks at a press conference to launch Labour's NHS week in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Balls says Labour would speak to SNP - but rules out negotiations

Shadow chancellor says Leader of the House would "talk to all parties" but rejects negotiations on the Budget and defence. 

As the SNP published its manifesto in Edinburgh, Ed Balls was being interrogated about how Labour would handle the party if it held the balance of power in a hung parliament. Asked about the comments made yesterday by shadow leader of the Commons, Angela Eagle, who said that Labour would "speak to any party with representation" to try and pass a Queen's Speech, Balls sought to clarify rather than disown her remarks. "If you're the shadow leader of the House then in your job you talk every day to everybody," he said, speaking at the launch of Labour's NHS week in London. "You're talking, if you're Angela Eagle, to Tories, you'll have spent quite a lot of time in the last few months talking to the very small band of Ukip MPs as well." He latter added: "Of course in parliament it's the job of the Leader of the House to talk to all parties, that's what happens. William Hague and Angela Eagle have conversations to make sure that they organise the business of the House week-to-week." 

But Balls drew a firm distinction between these intermittent conversations and the negotiations that the Tories are claiming Labour would have to embark on with the SNP. "Is Labour going to start to form a coalition or to negotiate our Budget or our tax rates or the defence of our country with a party which seeks to break up the United Kingdom? The answer is unequivocally no," he said. He added: "The only reason you're asking this question, and the only reason it's on the agenda, is because David Cameron is desperately flailing around trying to divert attention from his failing election campaign and making allegation after allegation - the reality is you know and I know the SNP want a Tory government and the Tories want the SNP to do well."

The question is whether, if the SNP held the balance of power, Eagle and others would be forced to speak to them rather more than other parties. But Balls has today drawn a line the sand that Labour would find it hard to retreat from. As thing stands, it appears likely that the party would call the nationalists' bluff by tabling a left-leaning Queen's Speech and a Budget and daring them to vote them down. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What's going on in Northern Ireland?

Everything you need to know about why Northern Ireland is heading for an early election - and how it all works. 

Northern Irish voters will elect a new government, just seven months after the last election. Here’s what you need to know.

It all starts with something called the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), a scheme designed to encourage businesses to switch to renewable sources of heating, by paying them to do so. But the plan had two flaws. Firstly, there was no upper limit to how much you could receive under the scheme and secondly there was no requirement that the new heaters replace the old.

That led to businesses installing biomass boilers to heat rooms that had previously not been heated, including storage rooms and in some cases, empty sheds.

 The cost of the scheme has now run way over budget, and although the door has been closed to new entrants, existing participants in the scheme will continue collecting money for the next 20 years, with the expected bill for the Northern Irish assembly expected to reach £1bn.  

The row is politically contentious because Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and the First Minister of Northern Ireland, was head of the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) when the scheme was rolled out, putting her at the heart of the row. Though there is no suggestion that she personally enriched herself or her allies, there are questions about how DETI signed off the scheme without any safeguards and why it took so long for the testimony of whistleblowers to be acted on.

The opposition parties have called for a full inquiry and for Foster to step down while that inquiry takes place, something which she has refused to do. What happened instead is that the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, resigned his post, he said as a result of frustration with the DUP’s instrangience about the scheme.

Under the rules of the devolved assembly (of which, more below), the executive – the ministers tasked with running the government day-to-day must be compromised of politicians drawn from the parties that finish first and second in the vote, otherwise the administration is dissolved.  McGuinesss’ Sinn Fein finished second and their refusal to continue participating in the executive while Foster remains in place automatically triggers fresh elections.

Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote (STV) to elect members of the legislative assembly (MLAs). Under STV, multiple MLAs are elected from a single constituency, to more accurately reflect the votes of the people who live there and, crucially, to prevent a repeat of the pattern of devolved rule under first-past-the-post, when prolonged one-party rule by the Unionist and Protestant majority contributed to a sense of political alienation among the Catholic minority.

Elections are contested across 18 seats, with five MPs elected to every seat. To further ensure that no part of the community is unrepresented in the running of the devolved assembly, the executive, too, is put together with a form of proportional representation. Not only does the executive require a majority in the legislature to pass its business, under a system of “mandatory coalition”, posts on the executive are allocated under the D’Hondt system of proportional representation, with posts on the executive allocated according to how well parties do, with the first party getting first pick, and so on until it comes back to the first party until all the posts are filled.

Although the parties which finish third and lower can opt out of taking their seats on the executive and instead oppose the government, if the first and second party don’t participate in the coalition, there is no government.

As it is highly unlikely that the DUP and Sinn Fein will not occupy the first and second places when the election is over, it is equally unlikely that a second election will do anything other than prolong the chaos and disunity at Stormont. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.