Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: after getting all dressed up to make a deal, Theresa May has had the wind let out of her sails by Arlene Foster.
The DUP’s leader has declared that there is “no current prospect” of a deal being reached between her party and Sinn Féin, citing irreconciliable differences over the Irish language, and saying publicly what many members of the DUP have been saying privately for months: that power-sharing in Northern Ireland is dead for the foreseeable future and that it is well past time for Whitehall to begin direct rule. To add salt to the wound, Simon Hamilton, the DUP’s man charged with negotiating with Sinn Féin, has said that May’s visit was “a distraction” that was “not helpful”.
What went wrong? The British government rightly picked up that there was movement within Sinn Féin now that its leadership handover is done and dusted, which made a deal easier at their end; but failed to realise that the ground had shifted within the DUP as well, and not in a good way. Foster is a relative moderate – she even drinks from time to time – and still partly carries the blame for the DUP’s disappointing result in the snap election in March 2017.
The collapse of power-sharing was triggered, yes, in part, because Sinn Féin wanted to effect the changing of the guard between the Martin McGuinness-Gerry Adams generation and the new Mary Lou McDonald-Michelle O’Neill generation. But the major factor was the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, a poorly-designed environmental subsidy that effectively paid businesses the more renewable energy they used, even when that usage wasn’t replacing existing usage. The so-called “cash for ash” scandal saw farmers fitting heaters in buildings that had previously been unheated and businesses fitting extra heaters in order to cash in. The final bill is expected to exceed £1bn and the minister in charge was Arlene Foster, then Minister for Enterprise.
There is no suggestion however that Foster behaved improperly during her time in charge of the department. But her maladroit handling of the row on the campaign trail helped contribute to the loss of the Unionist majority in the subsequent snap election. All of which meant that with anger rising in the DUP’s grassroots about the Irish Language Act, the party leadership’s ability to make a deal has weakened at exactly the point Sinn Féin’s has strengthened.
What happens next? In all likelihood, the British government will persist with the idea that power-sharing is not dead for a while longer. Why? Because the legislative and institutional demands of Brexit already mean that the government’s domestic agenda is largely non-existent. Now legislative time will have to be found to manage direct rule, putting further pressure on a stretched civil service and a majorityless government.