A Year Without Government Series: Part I of III

This week will mark one year since the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly and one year without government in Northern Ireland. Over the next few articles from myself on this site I hope to take a satirical and hopefully comical look back on the events of this year and how we managed to find ourselves in the situation. The following was written entirely tongue in cheek and none of it should be taken very seriously.

How did we get here?

Do you like burning stuff? Perhaps you are a frequenter of the 11th night bonfires or the feast of assumption bonfires on the 15th of August where massive amounts of wood pallets are burnt every year for the hell of it? But maybe this just isn’t enough for you, you want to burn wood all year round.

Well you’re in luck because now the government in Northern Ireland will pay you to constantly burn wood pellets for no good reason, and who says government is wasteful? In a rush of Orange fervour the government accidentally subsidised the burning of “pellets” rather than “pallets”, but it’s an easy mistake to make and who cares,  you can just pretend to have a mini bonfire night all the time.  Hurry though, offer only lasts as long as nobody realises, which turns out to be quite a while. £490m of tax payer’s money later kind of a while to be exact. This is of course the Renewable Heat Incentive or RHI scandal, the government scheme to save the environment that involved paying people to burn stuff, regardless of whether the energy they were producing was doing anything more useful than heating and empty barn.

This scheme was actually introduced UK wide but when it came to implementing it here the Northern Ireland Assembly decided to make one key change, they failed to put a cap on the amount of money they would give to each individual under the scheme. This meant that for every £1 you spent installing and feeding your wood pellet burner the government would pay you £1.60. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out how this could be exploited. People and businesses across Northern Ireland suddenly decided that empty barns needed heating, that their chickens would actually prefer a more tropical climate and that is never too early to start preheating your beef even when it’s still alive and wandering around a shed at the end of your yard.

This scheme was set up by the DUP and more specifically by the leader of the DUP Arlene Foster during her time Environment minister. When Sinn Fein heard about this they were livid, how dare their partners in government run such a dodgy scheme and not let them in on it? Now only protestant farmers could benefit from earning off preheating their cows. Does unionist arrogance know no bounds?

This leads into the second reason for the collapse of Stormont, in 2016 having equalled their best ever Assembly election result the DUP did begin to show some complacency. They made reckless decisions, such as the cutting of Liofa funding, which seemed to be taken simply to spite nationalists. The Liofa Gaeltacht Bursaries Scheme provided small grants to people from disadvantaged backgrounds who wanted to learn Irish, it cost very little money and was described by a civil servant as having “a positive impact.” And yet Paul Girvan, the DUP communities’ minister decided to cut the scheme entirely sending an email to the boards of Gaeltacht colleges that read, in Irish: “Because of efficiency savings, the department will not be providing the Liofa bursary scheme in 2017. Happy Christmas and Happy New Year.” Many people decided that this was in bad taste and eventually Girvan issued an embarrassing U turn on the entire subject stating that the funding had been “found” again. Perhaps Paul Girvan should pass on some advice to other ministers that there is in fact funding for anything as long as the minister looks hard enough.

While the Liofa funding being cut did not present a massive problem for Sinn Fein as an isolated issue it acted as the straw that broke the camel’s back. Sinn Fein claimed to being left out of the decision making process on a number of issues. They summarised their reasons for removing themselves from the power-sharing executive at Stormont in the resignation letter of Martin McGuiness. The following passage from that letter covers the main points:

The equality, mutual respect and all-Ireland approaches enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement have never been fully embraced by the DUP. Apart from the negative attitude to nationalism and to the Irish identity and culture, there has been a shameful disrespect towards many other sections of our community. Women, the LGBT community and ethnic minorities have all felt this prejudice. And for those who wish to live their lives through the medium of Irish, elements in the DUP have exhibited the most crude and crass bigotry…

Against this backdrop the current scandal over the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) has emerged. It is my firm view that the DUP’s handling of this issue has been completely out of step with a public mood which is rightly outraged at the squandering of public money and the allegations of misconduct and corruption. The public are demanding robust action and accountability but the DUP, in particular its leader Arlene Foster, have refused to accept this.

The DUP leader has a clear conflict of interest. She was the Minister responsible for the RHI scheme at its inception. No cost controls were put in place and warnings were ignored.

So Sinn Fein took out their grievances by bringing the whole system to a halt, the Assembly would be unable to pass a budget to allocate use of the block grant, a new election would need to be called and use of the word “crisis” in local newspaper headlines would increase by at least a factor of one hundred. One might even be forgiven for thinking that the group of people who used to blow things up to get their way may have a bit of a flare for the dramatic and an aversion to orderly functioning government.

 The resignation of Martin McGuiness and subsequent failure of Sinn Fein to nominate someone to the post of deputy First Minister set in motion the well tried and tested mechanisms for the complete collapse of government in Northern Ireland. It is perhaps interesting to note that it was Michelle O’Neil, at the time Sinn Fein’s Health Minister, who stood up and informed the Assembly that her party would not be renominating for the position of deputy First Minister. She had also recently been standing in more prominent positions during Sinn Fein press conferences. These signs both turned out to be early indicators as to what was in store for the future leadership of the party. O’Neil would later take on the role of “Leader in the North”.   

The unlucky individual, James Brokenshire, who happened to be the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland during such interesting times stepped in, looking like an 11 year old in his dad’s suit, to set the date for a new Assembly election. The 2nd of March was chosen, less than a year since the last one.

It must be a rare occurrence nowadays that someone’s admits envy for any aspect of the currant American political situation, but at least they know when their elections will be, no surprises. In the period of three years between 2014-2017 the people of Northern Ireland went to the polls for six times including one EU parliament election, one set of local council elections, two general elections, one EU referendum and two Assembly elections.

Meanwhile, in america people are able to (and have) made countdown clocks to the end of the Trump presidency and barring some totalitarian takeover, which seems unlikely, they can be pretty much 100 percent sure of its accuracy.

Note I do not dismiss the notion of a totalitarian takeover in America due to a lack of intent but rather a lack of competence, but I digress.  

The Campaign Begins

The key to the success of the DUP and Sinn Fein and the reason that they overtook the UUP and SDLP as Northern Ireland’s two largest parties is the symbiotic relationship that they have developed over the years.  They rely heavily on each other to remain in power. The more confrontational and outspoken the DUP and Sinn Fein are the more likely unionist and nationalist voters are to go on the defensive and vote with the more extreme brand of their politics to keep the other side out. It’s no surprise then that during the 2016 election the DUP ran with the slogan “Vote DUP to stop a Sinn Fein first minister”.  Both parties must quietly moderate in order to get things done while maintaining the appearance of being hardline. This symbiotic relationship put into practise in the 2017 campaign took the form of Arlene Foster making the occasional dismissive comment about the nationalist community while Gerry Adams would make the odd vaguely threatening speech to remind everyone he is scary.

This was a campaign of appealing to bases. As would later become clear the result would be determined by which side managed the highest turnout of their traditional supporters.  The parties were aware of this fact which is why for this election the DUP and Sinn Fein were determined to beat the tribal drums even more so than usual, with Arlene Foster giving her first speech of the election cycle in an Orange Hall and Máirtìn Ó Muilleoir, Sinn Fein’s finance minister choosing the Felons Club in west Belfast as his venue for Sinn Fein’s first high profile speech of the campaign.

There was however a suggestion of hope that this cycle may be broken by the UUP and SDLP. Both parties were keen to focus more on a discussion of actual policy. They attempted to present themselves as an alternative partnership that would be able to work together in contrast with the apparently currently abysmal relationship between the DUP and Sinn Fein. There was even a suggestion of the two parties reaching across community lines with an apparently amicable relationship between Colm Eastwood and Mike Nesbitt with Nesbitt even saying he would transfer his second preference vote to the SDLP. It’s clear to see then why in Northern Ireland this failed miserably.

That is of course a rather pessimistic view that this would not work in a Northern Ireland that has come so far and made so much progress. But with the benefit of hindsight it is also right.

Currently still at the centre of the RHI storm Arlene Foster did take a relative backseat in the DUP campaign. This was especially apparent when compared to the campaign of 2016 where she was front and centre. Even in the consistencies where Foster was not running we were encouraged via posters to “Elect Arlene First Minister”. While in 2017 Foster was notably absent from any campaign literature in some constituencies in which she had been plastered all over every poster and leaflet less than a year ago.

On one of Foster’s considerably reduced public appearances she managed to refer to nationalists as crocodiles, a great way to talk about a large proportion of the people you are supposed to be elected to represent. She did this when talking about an issue that she underestimated how much people cared about, the Irish Language. Foster’s crocodile comment is very unlikely to have deterred anyone who had previously planned to vote DUP from doing so. What it almost undoubtedly did do was increase turnout among Sinn Fein supporters already riled up about RHI.

As the campaign progressed it became clear that it was not the deed but the refusal to accept responsibility that would hurt the DUP and Foster with regards to RHI. Who knows what might have happened is she had simply stepped aside for a couple of months, but this whole situation might have been avoided. We need only look back to when Peter Robinson stepped aside temporarily after his own scandal, Sinn Fein left him alone and he was soon able to return to finish his career with most of his dignity.

Sinn Fein on the other hand was more than happy to trot out their new leader in the north, and of course Gerry, lots and lots of Gerry.

Sinn Fein’s election posters were all colours and rainbows urging us that a vote for them would promote equality and oppose Tory cuts, seeming to forget that both socially and economically the county that they want us to join i.e. Ireland is much more conservative than the UK. That is of course if you believe that that Sinn Fein has any real principles other than a united Ireland. All their policies seem to be conveniently aimed at young people turned off by the DUP dinosaurs.

It is not difficult to imagine that in Sinn Fein’s case socialism is just a nice story for the soldiers and anyone who is willing to kill for a united Ireland is probably also willing to pretend they like gay people for a bit to the same end.

Finn Purdy is an A-level politics student in Belfast with a particular interest in local issues. Twitter – @FinnPurdy