Northern Ireland Assembly Q&A: what happens next?

Dreading another election? Just be thankful if it is just one more this year

This is a time when a strong political voice should be heard from Stormont to try to ensure a favourable Brexit deal for the North. Instead it seems the voices will be of electoral squabbling

This is a time when a strong political voice should be heard from Stormont to try to ensure a favourable Brexit deal for the North. Instead it seems the voices will be of electoral squabbling

 

Would Assembly elections purge the current political poison?

Almost certainly not. Sinn Féin has insisted that the issue has gone way beyond the botched “cash-for-ash” renewable heat incentive (RHI) scheme which, because of a lack of cost controls, could cost the Northern Ireland taxpayer up to £490 million over the next 20 years. There is no going back to the status quo, according to Martin McGuinness, whose resignation as Deputy First Minister effectively collapsed the Northern Executive. Sinn Féin now has a shopping list of other issues it wants delivery on. This includes the Irish language, getting a Troubles interpretative centre at the old Maze prison site, dealing with the past, same-sex marriage, and persuading the DUP to “show respect” to Sinn Féin.

So, after an election would the Northern Executive and Assembly automatically return?

Again, almost certainly not. Under legislation after the election there are seven days to form a new Northern Assembly, and there are a further seven days for a First Minister and Deputy First Minister to be appointed. Judging by Sinn Féin’s current stance, that won’t happen. In such a case the Northern Secretary James Brokenshire should call fresh elections.

More elections, the third in a year, surely not?

The frequently asked question would arise: elections to what? It’s difficult to predict how RHI will affect the DUP vote, but the expectation is that once again the DUP and Sinn Féin will emerge as the biggest and second biggest parties. We would be back to stalemate unless Sinn Féin moderated its position and allowed its shopping list to be addressed within the context of a functioning Executive and Assembly. But again, taking Sinn Féin at its current word, that could not happen. Therefore Brokenshire could decide to bypass the necessity for a second round of elections and introduce emergency legislation, as he can do, to suspend Stormont. This would be to allow negotiations to address the Sinn Féin matters and almost certainly additional issues raised by the DUP and other Stormont parties.

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Just like the old days, more crisis talks?

Yes, we could be back for hothouse negotiations to try to get politics back on track. That could be somewhere on the Stormont estate or at Hillsborough Castle or, if the British and Irish government so decide, at some isolated palatial house – as was so often the case in the past – to get the parties up close and personal and possibly more inclined to strike a deal.

So, Stormont could be back by the summer?

Not necessarily. The election campaign, even before it has been formally called, is already bitter and venomous, with unproven accusations of corruption and of arrogance and bigotry being hurled at the DUP by Sinn Féin. The DUP, because of the disastrous RHI scheme, is on the back foot, but it will respond in kind. Short of an unexpected last-ditch deal by Monday to avert an election, this campaign, as Arlene Foster has predicted, will be “brutal”. Often differences can be set aside after elections are concluded, but such is the expected toxicity of this campaign that it may be difficult to mend fences.

What happens if there is no agreement?

It could be a return to direct rule from Westminster, with British ministers rather than Northern Ireland politicians running the various departments. This would antagonise Sinn Féin and the SDLP. As a co-guarantor of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, the Irish Government would be expected to have some input or role in such a scenario. Also expect rows over nationalist demands for the North to be jointly run by London and Dublin.

It’s a mess?

It’s a monumental mess, and it’s made worse by the fact that this crisis is unfolding when the British government is about to trigger article 50 to begin its breakaway from the European Union. A majority of people in the North, 56 per cent, opposed Brexit. This is a time when a strong political voice should be heard from Stormont to try to ensure a favourable deal for the North. But, instead, it seems like the voices will be of electoral squabbling.