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. 

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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 political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.