2017 has started bleakly for Northern Ireland and now everyone needs to take a deep breath before things start to spiral out of control. It is important also to remember the progress that has been made, the dividend that peace has brought and ask is this all really worth putting at risk?
Last year, 2016, was a good year for employment and the economy in Northern Ireland. The number of people in work finally returned to the level it was at prior to the global financial crisis. At the same time, people in Northern Ireland are being paid more, as wages rose in real terms for the second year in a row.
The gathering storms of Brexit were however always going to provide a challenge. Thersea May’s new year interview could only be interpreted as signalling a hard Brexit, which does not augur well for Northern Ireland and its efforts to attract investment.
Phil Hogan’s recent sensible advice was that the Irish Government needs to maintain and build our alliances with continental Europe to ensure that the EU works to safeguard the Northern Irish peace process. The Commissioner warned that as a result of the Brexit the return of a hard border between both parts of Ireland looks inevitable.
This depressing situation is compounded by the collapse of the Power-Sharing Executive, precipitated by Martin McGuinness’s resignation. For many people including in both governments, this crisis has come as a bolt from the blue. But for those of us who remain steadfastly attuned to Northern Ireland, it is clear that the temperature has been rising considerably and that some outside intervention was necessary. Over the last few months, the language of political discourse in Northern Ireland has regressed, it has become more abusive and more engaged in recriminations about the past.
Given the trauma of IRA attacks on her father and her school bus, issues that Arlene Foster brought up again last week to defend her unwillingness to resign at the behest of republicans, it is maybe not surprising that her relationship with Sinn Féin has been difficult.
Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley became friends and were dubbed the Chuckle Brothers and the relationship between McGuinness and Peter Robinson, while not as warm, was professional and respectful. Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness have never gelled. From experience, I can tell you that personalities matter in a coalition government and if there is a fundamental mistrust, a breach becomes harder and harder to avoid.
The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), now infamously known as the ‘Cash for Ash Scheme, is the spark to the current crisis. It was set up by Arlene Foster as a Minister to encourage business to move towards environmentally-friendly heating methods. Unfortunately, this scheme seems to have been badly conceived and the subsidies should definitely have been capped. The taxpayer in Northern Ireland has been left with an exposure of £400 million. Public outrage is understandable, but is this worth fatally wounding the peace process in a fragile democracy?
Other factors are adding to the political combustion. In November, Sinn Féin was incandescent when a DUP minister unilaterally abolished funding for an Irish language bursary scheme. The cost of this scheme was just £50,000, a small sum in the overall government expenditure, but the damage this has done has been immense.
Having managed coalition governments with the PDs, the Greens and Independents, I have no doubt that there would have been negative (and potentially fatal) consequences if Fianna Fáil pulled the rug from under an initiative that was politically important to our coalition partners.
An election with its inevitable tribal language is likely to enflame the situation further. In fact, the rhetoric from the Brexit referendum and the passions generated within the DUP and Sinn Féin on this divisive issue has contributed significantly to the breakdown in cohesion in the Power-Sharing Executive. It reminds me in some ways of 1990 Presidential Election when Fianna Fáil and our coalition partners in the PDs both backed different candidates. The legacy of bitterness from that contest marked the beginning of the end for Charlie Haughey.
Will Arlene Foster survive as First Minister? Only time will tell, but if this is the end of Martin McGuinness’s career, I think he deserves better. For over two decades, first as a chief negotiator and then as Deputy First Minister, he has made a constructive and brave contribution to peace on this island. He has positively engaged with Unionists, with the British Government and even the Royal Family, sometimes at great risk to himself. He also has been to the forefront of condemning the violence of dissidents. I have known Martin has been struggling with his health and I pray that he will make a full recovery.
I am not sure I buy into the theory that Sinn Féin’s decision to force a snap election is motivated by the prospect of electoral gains. The reality is that an election is a lose-lose situation for politicians from all sides. It is only eight months since the last election and this Assembly was due to run until 2021. Nobody wants or needs an election. Furthermore, the next Assembly will be a reduced body of 90 seats rather than the current 108-seat Assembly, meaning that a lot of political careers across the spectrum are going to come to a hasty end.
It will make a bad situation worse if Northern Ireland is without a government when Theresa May triggers Article 50 in March. I support the efforts of the two Governments to find a resolution to the crisis and try to avoid an election. One solution might be for Ministers to continue in their roles in a caretaker capacity for a month. This would allow time for a preliminary inquiry to take place into the RHI and, more importantly, give space to both the DUP and Sinn Féin to manoeuvre out of the cul-de-sac they have currently backed themselves into. A four week cooling off period is better than no institutions and months and months of political drift.