Ireland ‘power-sharing’ executive collapses

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March 2017 will see elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly held for the second time in ten months. On 9 January, amid the latest crisis to engulf Britain’s political institutions in the North of Ireland, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister, thus collapsing Stormont’s ‘power-sharing’ Executive. His party had seven days to re-nominate for the post, or else trigger a return to the polls. First Minister and Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster warned any election campaign would be ‘brutal’. Sinn Fein declined to nominate a replacement and, on 16 January, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire called a snap election.

Cash-for-ash

Sinn Fein’s decision to force an election was precipitated by public reaction to the ‘cash-for-ash’ corruption scandal – a story that broke in February 2016 but erupted in December with further revelations. The First Minister was personally implicated. With the ensuing drip-drip of allegation and revelation, the sheer arrogance with which Foster and her cabal in the DUP passed the buck garnered widespread revulsion.

The controversy concerns the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) which, in Britain, uses public money to subsidise heat generation by businesses employing methods deemed ‘renewable’ – solar, geothermal, but also wood-pellet fires. With devolution of the scheme, Stormont officials made some adjustments: subsidy became freebie. In the case of wood pellets, it now paid £1.60 for every £1 of fuel used – the more you burned, the more you earned. Soon enough, the DUP’s farmer friends felt the chill. Chicken sheds, outhouses, and empty barns: in came the heaters, up went the thermostat and – with windows open and doors thrown wide – the money rolled in.

After a colossal overspend, blushing civil servants suggested it was perhaps time to introduce a measure of control. With the ultra-efficiency of a wood-pellet boiler, Stormont mandarins set about informing their contacts in the renewables industry of imminent changes. The amendments would affect new applicants only; companies were advised their customers better ‘get in quick’ or miss the boat. Applications spiked, so did the costs. The scheme was finally closed to new applications in February 2016 after whistle-blower testimony made the front pages. As jobs are cut and hospital wards closed in the name of austerity, RHI payments to business are set to total over £1 billion by 2036.

Sinn Fein: side-stepping and ‘stepping aside’

For weeks prior to the Executive’s collapse, Stormont’s various ‘opposition’ parties were calling for the head of the First Minister. Sinn Fein was not. Rather, they served up an old Stormont chestnut, suggesting Foster need merely ‘step aside’ while an ‘investigation’ took place. Having offered Foster an escape only to be swiftly rebuffed, Sinn Fein was all at sea. The opposition – sensing an opportunity to redress their political irrelevance – spoke of ‘the perception of cover-up’ and demanded a public inquiry. They were clear in their demands. Sinn Fein was anything but. Throughout December and much of January, their people couldn’t quite agree whether they were for a public inquiry or against one. Eventually they settled on a definite line: they opposed a public inquiry – it would take too long and cost too much. Only, Foster then decided her party were not averse to such an inquiry after all. Within a fortnight, neither were Sinn Fein.

The price of ‘peace’

This scandal follows close upon the last one: an exposé of the Ulster Defence Association’s role in a Stormont-funded charity, Charter NI. Loyalist gangs have long availed themselves of British and EU-funding for their ‘community organisations’. This ‘peace’-protection racket was part of their price for an uneasy acquiescence in a new old order. British imperialism in crisis cannot sustain the scale of material privilege once broadly shared among loyalist workers. ‘Cash-for-ash’, Charter NI and similar scandals manifest a more selective distribution of privilege, with political factions striving to shore up support from unionism’s medium and petty bourgeoisie and the paramilitaries that police loyalist estates.

Anger management

In announcing his resignation, McGuinness spoke of DUP intransigence; their ‘crude and crass bigotry’, and various other things he had apparently only just noticed. He also cited ‘Britain implementing austerity and Brexit against the wishes...of the people here’. Foster decried his departure as ‘political not principled’. Though it was clearly serious ill health that necessitated the resignation, Sinn Fein’s move to trigger an election was indeed political – the result of pressure to act from an angered membership and support base. They were angry at the customary arrogance with which the DUP brushed off allegations and Foster refused to budge. More, they were increasingly embarrassed by their party’s failure to do anything about it whilst the likes of the Ulster Unionists and Social Democratic Labour Party took the moral high ground. Sinn Fein opted for an election as a safe outlet for their followers’ fury.

Sinn Fein say they seek a mandate with which to negotiate a settlement based on British guarantees of ‘respect and equality’ – they tell us there will be ‘no return to the status quo’. The Six County statelet is a sectarian statelet. In cannot be reformed in the interest of ‘equality’. The status quo was made viable by Sinn Fein’s reformist strategy. Their participation in the political institutions and the associated privileges – however unequal – are all they have to show for it. Consequently, at the negotiating table, it is British imperialism that can call Sinn Fein’s bluff, and not the other way around.

Patrick Casey

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