In an unprecedented move, the Conservatives will grant a half-day debate to the Democratic Unionist Party just a week before elections to the devolved assembly in Stormont on 2 March, the New Statesman has learned. No equivalent to the half-day debate, which will take up the entirety of the Thursday afternoon session, is being given to the other Northern Irish parties, who will also be competitors in the elections.
The DUP, which has grown closer to the Conservative Party since Theresa May became Prime Minister, has eight seats at Westminster, and voted with the government at every stage of the Brexit Bill’s passage through the House of Commons, strengthening the government’s majority.
But the granting of the debate, which one Westminster insider said would become a “party political broadcast” for the DUP, represents a remarkable intervention in the politics of Northern Ireland by the governing party at Westminster, which has for many decades attempted to remain an honest broker between the various parties there.
Labour and SNP politicians have warned the Conservatives that granting the debate would be seen as a partisan intervention by the other parties at Stormont. Although the debate had been planned before the collapse of the power-sharing executive, there was a widespread expectation that the debate would be moved to accomodate the purdah period – when government is prohibited from making new or controversial announcements in the run-up to an election – in Northern Ireland.
It comes at a time when power-sharing in Northern Ireland has never been in a more fragile position. Elections have been triggered by the collapse of power-sharing in the wake of the Renewable Heat Initiative scandal, or “cash for ash”. Under the scheme, businesses were paid to switch to renewable sources of energy, but no cap was placed on the scheme. The initiative, introduced when Arlene Foster, the DUP’s leader, was minister for business, has left the Northern Irish executive with a £1bn bill.
Fresh elections will almost certainly result in the DUP and Sinn Fein again occupying the two top spots, necessitating a coalition between the two. At that point, the ability of James Brokenshire, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to act as a mediator will be of vital importance.