By Katerina Karakatsanis
On the 2nd of March, Northern Ireland will hold new elections. Although Northern Ireland went to the polls as recently as eight months ago, these early elections are the result of the breakdown of the power-sharing government. This was sparked by the resignation of Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness, primarily over problems that arose over a new scandal: the Renewable Heat Incentive.
Northern Ireland, a region of 1.8 million people, is used to constitutional, social and violent scandals. For many, this newest debacle is just another example of the dysfunctional governmental system in Northern Ireland.
But this is larger than a political crisis. It is evidence that Northern Ireland is a ‘broken land’, which is also literally what the current UK Minister for Northern Ireland David Brokenshire’s name means.
In true Northern-Irish fashion, this problem is spiralling into larger issues and catching identity politics and political divisions, such as Brexit, into its political web.
As many are expected to vote for the two political parties who have already held power, the problems of Northern Ireland may just be boiling but, as usual, will not be resolved.
So what exactly is going on in Northern Ireland?
Scandal: The Renewable Heat Incentive
Let’s first back up. The catalyst that set everything off was revelations that emerged over the government’s Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI).
The RHI was an initiative launched in November 2012, under the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI), that offered businesses and homes a financial incentive to switch to an environmentally-friendly heating system. In this new initiative, the government promised to pay £1.60 for every £1.00 spent on the new heating system. This was designed to help encourage people to make the move to greener heat, but the overall plan had been largely miscalculated.
Unlike the similar system in Great Britain that the RHI scheme was modelled after, DETI set the subsidy for installing new heating systems (such as wood pellets) at a flat rate for 20 years. There were also no measures in place that would reduce the subsidy dependent on the amount of people who signed on to the scheme.
Some businesses quickly realised that it was in their economic interest to keep the heat on 24/7 and started to heat areas that previously were not heated. According to Northern Ireland’s Audit General, Kieran Donnelly, as there was no upper limit on how much energy the government would subsidise, “the more heat that is generated, the more is paid“.
In sum, the scheme has been estimated to have cost Northern Ireland, an area that costs the Westminster the most public money and raises the least amount of taxes in the UK, more than £1 billion. Westminister will pay around £600 million of this, but the Northern Irish taxpayer will pay the remaining £400+.
Was this on purpose?
Former DUP member, Jonathan Bell, was suspended from the party for arguing that the DUP was aware of this issue and was deliberately not ending the program. According to Bell, he tried to raise this matter and was told to leave it alone as there were high-level officials who had familial connections that were benefitting from the money scheme. Further, boilers have been destroyed in Fermanagh, the same county where the First Minister, Arlene Foster, is from.
As Northern Ireland deals with the revelations about the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, many are looking where to lay blame. Some place it with Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s First Minister. In November 2012, she was DETI Minister and thus responsible for the scheme
Ms Foster, as First Minister, holds the highest position in Northern Irish politics and is the leader of the Democratic Union Party (DUP), with Martin McGuinness, leader of Sinn Fein, being Deputy First Minister.
As a result of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing system of government (consociational democracy), the First Minister and Deputy First Minister must be from the two traditional communities, nationalist (traditionally Catholic) and unionist (traditionally Protestant).
Power-sharing broken down
Without McGuinness in place, the power-sharing structure is threatened, and new elections must take place. McGuinness has stated that he resigned the post as a result of Arlene Foster’s refusal to step down. Foster has resisted all pressure to give up her position and at the end of 2016 won a vote of no confidence, despite one whistle-blower’s statement that she notified DETI of how the RHI scheme was being abused. Foster, along with her party the DUP, has argued that Sinn Fein’s actions are sexist and politically motivated.
Although the next elections are scheduled for 2021, Northern Ireland’s political agreement states that after seven days without a new Deputy First Minister, the Northern Irish Secretary must call for elections. McGuinness highlighted in his resignation letter that there “will be no return to the status quo”.
In addition, according to Naomi Long, leader of the cross-community Alliance Party, UK Prime Minister Teresa May’s quiet position over Northern Ireland is due to the support that the DUP provides to the Conservative party in Westminster. As Brexit looms closer, the current government may not be able to afford to lose any more seats (the DUP holds 8 seats in Westminster) in its slim majority.
UK Minister for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, announced that elections will be held on the 2nd of March.
In the meantime, until another Executive Committee is formed, the Northern Irish Assembly will not be able to vote in any significant decisions.
Elections & Brexit: Leaving Northern Ireland without a voice in negotiations
This also means that elections are likely to correlate with the upcoming Brexit negotiations. Without a functioning government, Northern Ireland will be under direct rule from London. This means that Northern Ireland’s political leaders will not be in charge of representing their population in the Brexit talks.
Westminster, which will soon be facing an upward battle in the negotiations expected to start in March, will likely not fight on behalf of Northern Ireland’s unique concerns, and instead, be preoccupied with larger issues like trade. The lack of concern over Northern Ireland in London is further underlined by the low turnout in MPs who turned up in the House of Commons after McGuinnness’ resignation.
Northern Ireland’s lack of voice in the Brexit negotiations is troubling since the majority voted in favour of staying within the EU. In McGuinness’ home province of Foyle, a predominately Catholic area, 78% voted against Brexit, the third-highest result in the UK.
The move to leave the EU will severely impact Northern Ireland.
Streets in Northern Irish border towns and cities turn into the Republic of Ireland, something that is usually noticeable by the sharp increase in petrol stations across the southern border. For some, Brexit means a return to border controls that symbolised the Troubles, while others cite economic consequences, as potential negative effects of Brexit.
If Northern Ireland fares poorly in the upcoming Brexit negotiations, it runs the risk of becoming an even larger burden to the British taxpayer. It is hard to know whether regions across the UK will continue to subsidise this area
Elections in a Divided Society
This crisis also reinforces traditional community divides. The campaign over Brexit was fought over community lines, with Catholic political parties supporting the EU and Protestant parties campaigning for a Brexit.
Despite Northern Ireland having a multi-party system, the majority of the population votes for a political party that aligns with their traditional religious affiliation. Voting for a political party aligned with the Catholic community would be seen as self-defeating for someone from the Protestant side.
Northern Irish political parties are quite easy to categorise because of traditional divides but also as a result of political parties ‘looking out for their own’.
There are three main distinctions between political parties: nationalist (Catholic), unionist (Protestant) or cross-community. The majority vote for nationalist or unionist parties, which then conduct politics on these traditional divisions.
If you google ‘Sinn Fein’, the short blurb declares,
The DUP, in contrast, state their ‘vision’ as located within the UK and building strong links with Westminster to support this.
The third and fourth largest parties are the Social Democratic and Labour Party (Catholic) and the Ulster Unionist Party (Protestant).
This means that it is very likely that the DUP and Sinn Fein could emerge again as the top victors in this new election. Both parties have already begun actively campaigning and, in Northern Ireland, this means everything is now politicised.
Sinn Fein posters urge voters ‘Don’t get mad! Get even!’ and has sent out letters blaming the ‘belligerency of political unionism’.
In the meantime, DUP MPs such as Paul Givan have been quoting passages from the Bible in some bizarre way to support their campaign.
The last Assembly election cost Northern Ireland close to £5 million, according to the Electoral Commission. It is highly likely that the same two political parties – Sinn Fein and the DUP – will be leading the new government, just with a renewed mandate, leaving Northern Ireland in the same situation as before. If they still refuse to work together and negotiations break down, Westminister will fully control Northern Ireland legislature and voice in the Brexit talks.
Although we can speculate that Northern Ireland politics will largely stay the same, it is hard to speculate what will happen in the election and Brexit. 2016 was largely seen as a year of the ‘protest vote’, let’s hope that 2017 can be the year where the root causes of problems in places like Northern Ireland can begin to be worked on.