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Lucian Fletcher on the implications of the dramatic events in Northern Ireland politics

January 10th, 2017

The resignation of Martin McGuinness means that there is no longer any leadership in the Executive Office of Northern Ireland. The jointly-held nature of the position of First Minister/Deputy First Minister means that with Martin’s resignation, Arlene Foster has effectively been dragged kicking and screaming from office.

For those (most people, I expect) who don’t pay attention to Stormont politics as long as there’s no violence, this is all very odd. The government of Northern Ireland has effectively been brought down by a row over a minor scheme designed to encourage people to swap their boilers that burned fossil-fuels for those burning wood pellets. Seriously.

The scandal turns on the projected overspend of the scheme, which is between £400m and £600m. This stems largely from the removal of clauses that tiered and limited the amount which could be paid out when the scheme was copied from that in place in Great Britain. Why these clauses were removed is unclear and would be one of the key parts to any inquiry.

The RHI scheme was set up during Arlene Foster’s lengthy tenure at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. With much of that work outsources to Invest NI, she probably had the cushiest number in Northern Ireland. She just had to open stuff and announce new jobs. But she clearly took her eye off the ball in terms of policy detail.

Who knew what, when, is something for an inquiry to discover but in Sept 2015 someone finally realised the scheme was badly flawed and they planned to make changes to mitigate the losses. At that stage there was a huge spike in applications for the scheme ahead of any changes being made by the end of the year. Again, why this spike came and who these applicants were are questions that people in Northern Ireland want answered.

Opposition parties want a full independent public inquiry into the RHI scandal. Sinn Fein have proposed something short of this. But all parties (other than the DUP) agreed that Arlene Foster should stand aside during at least the initial stage of an inquiry as it is her actions and those of her officials that are being investigated. Sinn Fein suggested a four-week period, the UUP wanted her to resign completely.

But Arlene Foster sees herself as the Margaret Thatcher of Northern Ireland. She was not for turning. In an extraordinary interview with Sky News she played Arlene buzzword bingo, describing awful events in her childhood, her ‘strong’ leadership of Unionism and, to much incredulity, made claims of misogyny of those attacking her.

The fact that she seemed to turn her, ahem, fire on Sinn Fein suggested to me that she was laying the ground for an election campaign. They were still, at that point, in a joint Executive but I couldn’t really see how Sinn Fein would be able to fail to respond strongly to her while keeping their electorate and, in particular, their membership on side. And so it has come to pass.

Gerry Adams issued a warning at the weekend that Sinn Fein would not allow the situation to go on much longer and it appears Arlene Foster failed to respond. Having dug her trench, it was unlikely she’d climb out of it. The resignation of McGuinness means there is a seven-day period during which Sinn Fein can appoint a Deputy First Minister and keep the show on the road. However, his resignation letter is fairly clear in that they will not be doing that.

In which case, James Brokenshire, the Secretary of State, will have to call for an Assembly election. And here’s where it gets really messy. The Assembly is being reduced at the next election, which isn’t really due until 2020, by one seat per Westminster constituency. Under present boundaries, this means a reduction from 108 to 90. Theorectically, everyone is going to lose. To be honest, that prospect is almost certainly the reason parties have taken a month or so to get into election mode.

Martin McGuinness’ statement yesterday made it very clear that Sinn Fein will only return to the Executive on its own terms. I believe that neither the DUP nor UUP will be able to meet those terms fully. The SDLP should make clear to the electorate that a vote for Sinn Fein is a vote for a long period of Stormont stasis. The UUP will seek to make the Unionist election (elections in NI are largely twin event) about DUP incompetence and arrogance. But even in the unlikely event that the Unionist electorate returns to the UUP and puts Mike Nesbitt into the position of leading that bloc, I struggle to see how he could form an Executive Office with anyone other than Colum Eastwood, the SDLP leader. Eastwood, in turn, surely couldn’t go into office with Arlene Foster.

For completeness, Alliance leader Naomi Long has made a very favourable impression over the previous weeks and I would expect Alliance to hold all of their existing seats. This will by nature of a smaller Assembly make them a stronger partner for either Executive or Opposition in any reconvened Assembly. But the Assembly will not stand or fall on Alliance votes. That’s their inherent problem.

Having read all this, you can probably see the conclusion I am going to make is that an election is highly unlikely to resolve the issue. If (as is highly likely) the DUP and Sinn Fein are sent back to Stormont as the largest parties, the whole circular arguments will begin again and all we will have done is lost a few weeks’ worth more money in all these overly-lucrative boilers. A five-week delay, for instance, would be another £3million of public money in the air. Indeed, the only people an election suits is those who want to delay the inquiry which is needed into RHI. And we won’t really know who those people are until we get the inquiry.

For betting purposes, and I know that this is the point of this site, I cannot see how Arlene Foster becomes First Minister again. I can’t find any markets at the moment but I will be happy to provide any insights I can once they appear, as I’m sure they will once an election comes.

Lucian Fletcher

Lucian Fletcher is a long standing contributor to PB who lives in Northern Ireland.