Northern Ireland: No end to tribal politics

Tone of political exchanges suggests an election is likely to hurt community relations and damage prospects for future power sharing

 

The Northern Ireland electorate is unlikely to want an election at this time. That is what they seem certain to get, however, because of the behaviour of Democratic Unionist leader Arlene Foster and the reaction of Sinn Féin. Her refusal to acknowledge any ministerial fault in establishing and running a Renewable Heat Incentive scheme that may cost taxpayers up to £490million or to step aside pending an official inquiry, was the immediate cause of the current impasse.

But her unwillingness to abandon deep-rooted antipathies and promote a level of trust between the DUP and Sinn Féin within the power-sharing Executive represented a more fundamental failure.

The outcome of Assembly elections, only eight months ago, handed Ms Foster an exceptional opportunity to build on limited progress made under the Belfast Agreement.

With a 10-seat advantage over Sinn Féin, she was the unchallenged leader of unionism and darling of the DUP. Rather than striking out in a creative direction under a bi-party Executive, she allowed old animosities to fester. A lack of respect for political opponents and for the terms of the Belfast Agreement that guarantee parity of esteem for the two communities were widely quoted.

The bitterness of recent exchanges, political pressure on Ms Foster and the illness of Martin McGuinness all conspire to make the re-establishment of a DUP/Sinn Féin Executive problematical. An Assembly election may, however, provide surprises and upset the status quo. Political observers expect little change.

But the fact that all parties – bar the DUP – voted “no confidence” in Ms Foster as First Minister in the Assembly over the “ash for cash” scheme and called on her to step aside may have long-term consequences. Her recent willingness to establish an inquiry into the scheme reflects party concern about its potential for electoral damage.

A resigned acceptance has taken hold in London and in Dublin that Assembly elections are all but inevitable. Failing dramatic developments, Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire will consult with officials on Monday on the appointment of an election date.

That may have political implications if the election campaign focuses on negative Brexit implications. While the DUP favoured Brexit, other parties and a majority of the people in Northern Ireland did not.

Observers do not expect a reduction in the number of Assembly seats, from 108 to 90, to affect the main parties. But a volatile electorate and proportional representation could decide otherwise.

The tone of political exchanges in recent days suggests an election is likely to hurt, rather than help, community relations and damage prospects for future power sharing. These events represent yet another failure of tribal politics.

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