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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 British politics.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”