In the spotlight: The collapse of power sharing in Northern Ireland


Dangerous times in Northern Ireland as scandal and ill-feeling finally pull down a decade of power sharing

THE RESIGNATION of Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness over the so called ‘cash for ash’ scandal has thrown the Stormont’s power sharing government into crisis, and the future of NI into doubt.

McGuinness’ actions are a protest over the NI government’s handling of revelations the renewable heat incentive (RHI) scheme, has been widely abused to the cost of almost £500m to the tax payer, and will force DUP First Minister Arlene Foster from office, with the likely result of fresh elections taken place within weeks.

But what lies behind the dramatic collapse of NI’s finely balanced status quo, and where will the crisis take the six counties?

Conflict and reconciliation

The Northern Irish state came into being with the Irish Free State (the predecessor of the modern Republic of Ireland (RoI)) in the early 1920’s, following war between Irish republicans and the British state.

It was founded as a sectarian state, favouring it’s protestant majority. The so called ‘Orange state’ was shaken to its foundations with the onset of the civil rights movement organised by its Irish nationalist minority and by the armed campaign launched by the Provisional IRA from 1969.

Decades of bitter conflict followed, pitting republican militias against armed loyalist groups, the police and British army.

By the 1990’s both sides were exhausted by the fighting and the public were eager for peace. The IRA’s armed campaign ended in 1997 and in 1998 both sides signed the Good Friday Agreement, which led to power sharing governments with representatives from both republican and unionist sides of the conflict.

The nature of devolved government in NI

The NI Assembly is designed to promote peace through power sharing. The two largest parties, Sinn Fein and the DUP have held power together since 2007, a period of unprecedented stability.

But things haven’t always appeared so calm. Power sharing broke down repeatedly before 2007. Each time it did, fears were invoked of the dangers of direct rule from Britain, a situation which in the 1970’s and 1980’s only added more heat to political chaos and paramilitary conflict.

Increasing tensions became apparent in 2015, as power sharing looked close to collapse after tensions arose with the arrest of a leading Sinn Fein official over charges relating to an apparent IRA related killing.

Though power sharing survived, the unity of the government had been tested to its limit and the dispute worsened relations between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

‘Cash for ash’

Speculation always had it that if power sharing failed, it would do so because an impassable constitutional barrier would be reached. In the end, the ten year run was ended by scandal.

The RHI scheme was intended to promote the use of sustainable energy, but incompetence and possibly corruption saw it run massively over budget.

Former NI energy minister Jonathon Bell accepts the mishandling of the RHI scheme

Sinn Fein has called both for an independent inquiry and for Foster to stand down. Following McGuinness’ resignation Foster announced an inquiry (10 Janueary), but since it would ultimately report to her, Sinn Fein may be unlikely to accept the concession.

The future of NI

With Foster out of office, power will return to the NI office, meaning a temporary return to direct Westminster control. It is then NI secretary James Brokenshire’s responsibility to call an election. If he is unable to find a way to conciliate the DUP and Sinn Fein, then an election could be as little as seven weeks away.

These elections would come shortly before UK Prime Minister Theresa May has said she will trigger Article 50, the mechanism to leave the EU. NI voted remain in the 2016 referendum, and many across the political spectrum view Brexit as another possible disruption to the peace settlement, as it will substantially alter the relationship between NI and RoI.

The fallout in NI may well be tempered by overwhelming public opposition to any return to division and violence. The entire situation could, however, not have come at a worse time for the UK Government.

Further reading: Northern Ireland in the midst of Brexit

Picture courtesy of NICVANumber 10Sinn FeinRobert Young

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