As the Stormont Assembly collapses, Caoimhe Donnelly addresses the political fault lines in Northern Ireland diplomacy just before Brexit.
THE Northern Ireland Assembly has been awash with controversy and political upheaval recently following the resignation of former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. Tensions between McGuinness and First Minister Arlene Foster reached boiling point, due to her refusal to step down from Stormont despite narrowly dodging a no-confidence vote.
A near-empty Assembly comprising almost exclusively of Foster’s Democratic Union Party fellows sat in stoic support for their transitional leader, as Sinn Féin’s absence symbolised their ardent opposition to the current structure of the cabinet. Foster’s unwavering stance comes in light of a lack of inquiry into her handling of a Renewable Heat Incentive, which is estimated to cost the North around £1.18 billion over 20 years.
However, McGuinness’ resignation is only the straw about to break the camel’s back; the proposed upcoming election gives body to the pitiful breakdown of a cabinet barely eleven months old. No doubt the upcoming campaign trail will see staunch attempts by the opposition to tarnish the remainder of the DUP’s reputation, and resolve for a surge in Sinn Féin fealty.
“The proposed upcoming election gives body to the pitiful breakdown of a cabinet barely eleven months old”
The apparent dark cloud looming over the proceedings are the fears that Stormont deliberations will delay Prime Minister Theresa May’s highly-anticipated Brexit talks with the European Parliament. It is doubtful that the election will provide a sizable setback in the triggering of Article 50.
Politicians are therefore expected to campaign not only according to their party’s opposition to either Sinn Féin or the DUP’s conduct, but also based on the outcome they desire in regards to Britain’s departure from the European Union. Constituents will be subject to Members of the Legislative Assembly’s vocal desires to follow May’s suit and depart from the EU, or their campaigns to remain and potentially leave the UK.
Concerns have arisen over whether issues such as healthcare reform, education, welfare, and even the RHI policy may be placed on the back burner for lack of engaged political dedication. Voters’ own personal frustration may be vented in simply electing candidates based on their pro- or anti-Brexit stances, regardless of the concrete outcomes these proposals can produce.
Perhaps McGuiness’ inevitable departure from Stormont was a clear-cut catalyst for a more critical evaluation of the contentious power-sharing executive. The crisis has exposed the widening fault lines in diplomatic efforts between two fundamentally different parties, shoehorned together. When DUP Stormont speaker Robin Newton initially allowed Foster to address the floor with her statement in the heat of the RHI scandal debate, a protest walk-out followed. The speaker was accused of compromising the central joint office of the power-sharing structures.
The fragility of this delicate balance is becoming increasingly apparent. With each new infringement upon the idealist concept of the power-sharing executive, the Northern Irish government is increasingly seen as something of a petulant child unable to behave well with others by those in Westminster.
“The crisis has exposed the widening fault lines in diplomatic efforts between two fundamentally different parties, shoehorned together”
So what does McGuinness’ resignation signify? What are the implications for the future of Stormont? It is certainly indicative of a long-standing exasperation with forced close political proximity in Stormont from the perspective of Sinn Féin members. The fiery backlash against Foster’s administration and Sinn Féin’s steadfast unwillingness to elect a replacement for the former Deputy First Minister in order to further propel an election may not necessarily have been a calculated decision, but is certainly not uncharacteristic of the party’s historically stubborn temperament.
The negative light the DUP has been cast in as a result of the turbulent proceedings following the RHI agreement has aided McGuinness’ fellows in gaining some semblance of public sympathy, and helped to further demonise the majority government party to a certain degree. The alleged ‘arrogance’ of the former First Minister’s reluctance to bow to opposition pressure may have tarred and feathered her party. It is likely to significantly hinder their electoral success.
It is not far-fetched to suggest that the political in-fighting of the parties traditionally at loggerheads with one another will come to full fruition during the course of this fresh election. It will be seen, too, the manner in which it inexorably acts as a proxy for last-ditch Brexit support or condemnation.