by Frank Schnittger
Sun Jan 22nd, 2017 at 01:57:20 PM EST
The Northern Ireland Assembly, one of the key institutions set up under the Good Friday Agreement, has been dissolved and new elections are scheduled for 2nd. March. The last elections had been held as recently as May 2016. The proximate cause of the election is the resignation of Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in protest over the "Cash for Ash" Renewable Heat Incentive scandal and the refusal of First Minister Arlene Foster, Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), to stand aside whilst an inquiry is held.
Arlene Foster had been responsible for overseeing the scheme as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment. The scheme, which could cost taxpayers as much as £500 Million, basically paid users more to use wood pellets to heat their properties than the pellets cost in the first place. There were reports of farmers heating empty barns just to make a profit on the scheme and that the families of some prominent DUP politicians benefited from it.
In one sense you could claim that the dispute marks a welcome change in Northern Ireland to a political dispute over a bread and butter issue rather than on purely tribalistic, sectarian lines. As usual, in Northern Ireland, the reality is more complex.
Martin McGuinness, former IRA commander and one of the principle architects of the Good Friday Agreement, has now said he will not stand for re-election on health grounds. He had formed such a good relationship with the late Ian Paisley as First and Deputy First Ministers, that they came to be known as the "chuckle brothers".
In contrast, Arlene Foster, now ex-First Minister, appears to find it difficult to form a good relationship with anyone. Ian Paisley Jnr. has paid a remarkable tribute to Martin McGuinness and made the pointed remark that current Unionist leaders would do well to do more to build good relationships with their nationalist brethren as his father and Martin McGuinness had done.
Arlene Foster's leadership has been marked by a return to often trivial sectarian provocations which have further damaged relationships. She even tried to spin attacks on her stewardship of the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal as anti-feminist male chauvinism: a defence which angered feminists as undermining their real achievements - to which Arlene Foster and the DUP have contributed nothing.
But there is an even larger context. Northern Ireland voted against Brexit even though Arlene Foster and the DUP actively campaigned for it. According to a remarkable article by Fintan O'Toole they even financed a very expensive four-page pro-Brexit glossy ad supplement wrapped around the London Metro newspaper - most of whose readers would probably never have heard about the DUP and possibly thought it stood for Don't Understand Politics. The key fact he noted was that "Yet we have no idea who paid for it: Northern Ireland, charmingly, is exempt from British laws on the disclosure of political donations"...
So, for almost the first time in Northern Ireland politics, we had Unionist, Nationalist and non-sectarian parties united against the DUP and Brexit and winning a majority in a referendum. Many people, and not just nationalists, will be hoping that the new Assembly Elections in March will be the first to be fought on non-sectarian lines by parties representing a majority of voters. We shall see... The old tribal loyalties have a way of reasserting themselves. Certainly Arlene Foster has not been shy about playing the sectarian card.
As Winston Churchill noted:
`Then came the Great War ... Every institution, almost, in the world was strained. Great empires have been overturned. The whole map of Europe has been changed ... The mode of thought of men, the whole outlook on affairs, the grouping of parties, all have encountered violent and tremendous changes in the deluge of the world. But as the deluge subsides and waters fall, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that have been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world.'
Or as a former Tory Deputy Leader exclaimed:
"For God's sake, bring me a large Scotch. What a bloody awful country."
- Reginald Maudling, Home Secretary, on getting on a plane after visiting Northern Ireland for the first time.
The DUP's campaign for Brexit was not driven by any rational analysis of what was in Northern Ireland's best political and economic self-interest, but by an ideological affinity with hard right British nationalist politics and a desire to be seen to be more British than the British themselves. Northern Ireland farmers - many of them Unionists - stand to lose a lot from Brexit, and almost immediately. This is not some arcane dispute over the long-run benefits or otherwise of Brexit. The effects of Brexit on Northern Ireland of losing EU grants and programmes supporting the Peace Process will also be immediate and devastating.
Perhaps the DUP calculated, like others, that the Brexit referendum would provide them with a cost free opportunity to hype their British Patriotism with the Remain side ultimately winning and nothing changing anyway. Whatever. They have now placed themselves in a minority position in N. Ireland politics for the first time. That does not mean they won't remain the largest party with the first claim on the First Minister position. It does mean that there is unlikely to be another devolved administration in Northern Ireland while Arlene Foster is leader.
London will be gifted with another period of Direct Rule of Northern Ireland just when it needs it least. Relations between London and Dublin and cooperation over Northern Ireland have been at an all time high thanks to the Good Friday Agreement. The wanton destruction of the key institution set up under that agreement will have long term implications for British Irish relations just when the UK needs an ally within the EU most.