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Why Northern Ireland is on the brink of a snap election - and why it matters

A second election just months after the last is on the cards - but it is unlikely to solve anything. 

The story that matters more than any other? The resignation of Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness.

As the structure of devolved rule mandates power-sharing and “parity of esteem” between parties, McGuinness’ resignation forces the resignation of Arlene Foster as first minister and means that, unless Sinn Féin backtracks and appoints a replacement as deputy first minister in seven days, there will be fresh elections to Stormont.

The heart of the matter? The row over the Renewable Heat Incentive, the so-called “cash for ash” scandal. Under the scheme, farmers and other businesses were paid to use renewable energy, but there was no upper limit placed on the scheme, nor was there a requirement that the renewable heat incentive cover existing uses of energy. That meant that businesses were incentivised to use more heat, with one business allegedly installing boilers in a storage facility in order to collect more money for heating it, and some farmers installing heaters in sheds in order to cash in.

The pricetag of all this? Though the scheme has now been brought to an end, the ongoing liabilities of RHI mean that the devolved assembly will be paying out money for 20 years, with the final bill running to more than £1bn.

The blow to Northern Ireland’s finances will be even more acute as the country is set to lose out on funding from the EU, to which the region is a net beneficiary.

But what has elevated the row politically is that Arlene Foster, the first minister, was minister for the department of enterprise when the scheme was approved. McGuinness says that her position is not “credible or tenable” and has called for fresh elections to decide the matter.  

The difficulty is that an election is unlikely to settle anything. Stormont’s electoral system mandates power-sharing: the first-placed party chooses the first minister, the second the deputy, with posts allocated by the D’Hondt system (for a more detailed explanation of how D’Hondt works, click here). Though the third and fourth-placed parties can opt not to take their places on the executive, if either the first or second-placed parties do so, the executive can’t function, and direct rule from Westminster will be restored.

Voters in Northern Ireland elected a new assembly only last May, but there is the prospect that a snap election could, at least, change who is first minister.

When Peter Robinson, Foster’s predecessor, was implicated in the Irisgate scandal, he stood down temporarily as first minister, awaiting the results of an inquiry which went on to exonerate him fully. Still, standing down was not enough to prevent him losing his Westminster seat of Belfast East with a massive and unexpected swing to the Alliance, a non-sectarian party.

Although there is no implication that Foster behaved in a corrupt manner or has profited from the cash for ash affair, her handling of the row has been maladroit to put it mildly. She has accused her critics of misogyny, an ill-judged response to a scheme that will be a drag on the public purse in Northern Ireland for years to come.  

It feels likely that her party will pay at least a small price at the ballot box, potentially surrendering first place. That would mean Sinn Féin would hold the position of first minister for the first time, though that post and the deputy job are technically of equal weight. But even so, the system of mandatory coalition means that Foster and the DUP will be back in power after the next election regardless. Worse still, an election campaign may further enflame tensions between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

There are far-reaching consequences for the rest of the United Kingdom, too. Stable government in Northern Ireland and the peace process could both be put under threat. And that Brexit – opposed by 56 per cent of Northern Irish voters – runs the risk of putting a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic adds to the pressure on the peace process and on the Brexit negotiations generally.

It’s a big test, too, for James Brokenshire, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Theresa May has always known that Brexit and a swathe of other issues all had the potential to erupt in Northern Ireland which is why she appointed Brokenshire, who she trusts and rates highly, to the post. I’m told that she believes that Brokenshire’s abilities could take him all the way to the top. We may learn very soon whether that trust is justified.

 

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

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.