The nitty-gritty of the Northern Irish elections

Seana Davis investigates the challenges and controversies of Northern Irish politics as the election gets underway

After months of controversy, the whirlwind political scandal “cash for ash” caused the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly. After ten years of power-sharing between the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin, it was a botched energy scheme that caused a decade-long reign to go up in smoke. An election takes place today, March 2, which may see a return to coalition for the DUP and Sinn Féin, or a return to direct rule from Westminster. This election is certainly one to watch.


The Background

“If the First Minister does not take the actions that society desires and deserves and which a sustainable process of change requires, then Sinn Féin will bring this ongoing and totally unacceptable state of affairs to an end.” – Gerry Adams

In 2012, the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme was set up by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in Northern Ireland. The scheme was inherently and obviously flawed. The idea was to encourage businesses and farms to switch from burning fossil fuels to wood pellets. The concept was simple: for every £1 spent on wood pellets, one would receive £1.60 in return. The program was a duplicate of a similar scheme in Britain, except for the fact that there was no cap on how much one could profit from the scheme. If a farm in Britain used a boiler throughout the year, it would make a profit of £192,000 over 20 years from the scheme. The same farm would earn £860,000 over the same period in Northern Ireland. It was an erroneous blunder and many profited from the profound mishap.

Between 2012 and 2015, a total of 1,946 applicants were approved with a 98% acceptance rate. In 2014, the scheme was extended to domestic applicants. A year later, it was announced that the scheme would be amended and a further 984 applicants were approved during a three-month period. Following approval, accepted applicants are entitled to grants for up to 20 years. In April 2015, re-approval of the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme was denied by the Department of Finance due to “administrative oversights”.

The scheme hit the headlines in January 2016 when a whistleblower stated that one farm had been burning the pellets in an empty shed 24 hours a day in order to make a profit of £1 million over the next 20 years. A political scandal ensued when it was announced that £1bn was to be paid over two decades due to the botched scheme. £600m will be paid from the Northern Ireland Treasury and the remaining £400m will be remitted by the taxpayers.

The outgoing First Minister, Arlene Foster, has been heavily criticised for her handling of the catastrophe. Ms Foster was Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment until May 2015, when Mr Jonathan Bell adopted the role. In January 2016, Foster became Northern Ireland First Minister and leader of the DUP. During her tenure as Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister, she thoroughly supported the mangled scheme. The earliest warning came in 2011, when more than a dozen emails were sent to Foster by whistleblowers with a continuing theme that the scheme was flawed. The Minister continued to give the scheme her full support, and sent emails to banks in 2013 asking them to “look favorably” on businesses which were seeking to invest in renewable technologies.

A political blame-game ensued when Foster held her successor, Mr Bell of her own party, accountable for the calamity the scheme had become. Former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness called for Foster to step aside as First Minister in order for an independent judicial inquiry to be carried out. She denied this request, and stated that she does not “take orders” from Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin’s president, Gerry Adams, warned that the Northern Ireland Assembly would collapse if Foster did not step aside before a judicial inquiry began.“If the First Minister does not take the actions that society desires and deserves and which a sustainable process of change requires, then Sinn Féin will bring this ongoing and totally unacceptable state of affairs to an end.”


“Sinn Féin had a week, from January 9 to January 16, to nominate a successor. In retaliation, they refused to do so.”

By January 9, Martin McGuinness had resigned from office, citing the handling of the botched energy scheme as the primary grounds for his departure. In his resignation letter, McGuinness said that “the first minister has refused to stand aside, without prejudice, pending a preliminary report from an investigation. That position is not credible or tenable […] It is with deep regret and reluctance that I am tendering my resignation as deputy first minister.”

Northern Ireland is a “power-sharing” government, and represents both unionists and nationalists. The principle of the power-sharing rule is such that both parties govern equally. Once the Assembly is elected, a First Minister and a Deputy are chosen: one unionist and one nationalist. Should one resign, as McGuinness has done, unless a successor is chosen within a week an election is called by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (currently James Brokenshire). Sinn Féin had a week, from January 9 to January 16, to nominate a successor. In retaliation, they refused to do so. This resulted in the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly, with a “snap election” being held today.

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 brought an end to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. On April 10 1998, the peace agreement was signed which saw the devolution of power from Westminster to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Among other issues, such as cross-border initiatives, it was agreed that the Stormont Assembly would reform under the D’Hondt Model. The model was chosen so that power would be shared among parties in order to lessen sectarian divisions in government.

Presently, power has been been returned to Westminster until the elections take place. When the elections occur, the number of seats assigned to a party will reflect the election result. The most popular party will have the largest number of seats. It is generally accepted that the DUP will gain the most seats in this upcoming election, with Sinn Féin following. Should this occur and the two yet again agree to form a coalition, then power will be reinstated in Stormont. If, however, an agreement between the two largest parties cannot be reached, then power will be returned to Westminster by the Secretary of State.


Brexit and the Republic

“If a coalition is not reinstated in Northern Ireland, this will throw another constitutional hurdle at Theresa May.”

Sinn Féin Northern Ireland leader Michelle O’Neill said that the party will only return to government with the DUP if there is “real and meaningful” change, citing the DUP’s “arrogance” in the treatment of the “cash for ash” scandal. After the elections, the parties have three weeks to come to an agreement. If they do not, direct rule will return to Westminster. O’Neill has recently stated that Brokenshire (the Secretary of State) is biased toward unionists, and that “his one-sided partisan view means he cannot be an honest broker in negotiations.” Sinn Féin will not enter government unless there are negotiations made about a range of issues, including the Irish language. If a coalition fails to come about and direct rule is reinstated, this will have vast implications for the relationship between the North and the South.

Theresa May will trigger “Article 50” on March 9, which will invoke a two-year negotiation period. It is expected to be a “hard Brexit”, and as Northern Ireland is the only UK country to share a land border with an EU member state, this may create difficulties with border control. Customs checkpoints are currently being set up in Louth, Cavan, Monaghan, Donegal and on the M1 Motorway between Dublin and Belfast, according to the Irish Independent. However, Theresa May has said that she does not want a “return to the borders of the past” and that she wants a “seamless, frictionless border.”

Enda Kenny has stated: “I am confident that the European Union will not bring us back to a border of division.” The extent of the border will depend on Brexit negotiations, and the Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, has said that “even though it is the intent of the two jurisdictions involved we still have to get it across the line in Europe and that might be five or six years down the line.” Along with border controls, according to the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, UK services trade is expected to fall 60 % post-Brexit. Trade between the North and South will be affected.

Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, and these issues will again be brought to the forefront in the upcoming elections. If a coalition is not reinstated in Northern Ireland, this will throw another constitutional hurdle at Theresa May. Regardless of the outcome, Brexit will certainly come into play. With the upcoming Trinity Students’ Union preferendum on the reunification of Ireland, all issues relating to Brexit and the upcoming elections will certainly be highlighted. Though the energy scheme may be in ashes, this scandal is set to have one of the greatest influences on Northern Irish politics in decades.

Seana Davis

Seana Davis is a fourth year Geology student and News Editor of Trinity News.