Will Stormont still be standing in 2017?

News review of 2016: All eyes on Adams as ‘cash for ash’ row becomes burning issue

The North’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and First Minister Arlene Foster. Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

The North’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and First Minister Arlene Foster. Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

 

It was a MAD year in Northern Ireland and, come 2017, it could get madder.

The acronym is mutual assured destruction – the principle that, during the Cold War, kept the world from a nuclear holocaust and, much less dramatically, kept the North functioning reasonably well through most of 2016.

Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness – in their joint office as First Minister and Deputy First Minister – are locked into a system where, if one crashes, they both crash and Stormont crashes with them.

Whether that happens in the coming months primarily is down to Gerry Adams. Rather as in the film Dr Strangelove, he has the code that would envelop Stormont in a big political mushroom cloud.

But, we’ll come back to that.

Despite all the current ructions, there actually were some reasons to be cheerful in the North in 2016. But for Brexit, the calamitous renewable heat incentive scheme and the dissidents, it was a pretty good year.

The main “dark deed”, as it was properly described, was the murder of prison officer Adrian Ismay who died from bomb injuries in March.

That was carried out by a dissident group called the “New IRA”, which also murdered north Belfast taxi driver Michael McGibbon in a brutally botched “punishment shooting”.

Challenge

Dissidents remain a “severe” threat in Northern Ireland. They and the loyalist paramilitaries continue to exercise considerable control in working class communities.

Breaking that power will always be a challenge.

Equally, in north Belfast, the local nationalist community had the courage to protest against what the dissidents inflicted on the McGibbon family.

And it was local communities and local negotiators, with some outside intermediaries assisting, who helped ensure that – for the first time in years – there was no serious sectarian trouble in north Belfast on the Twelfth of July.

Moreover, later in the year, an agreement was achieved to finally allow Orangemen complete their parade past the Ardoyne shops from which they were barred since 2013.

It led to the removal of the loyalist Camp Twaddell.

Such deals were done mostly behind the scenes, and mostly away from media attention, but they took hard bargaining, hard work and commitment to see them through.

Another small incremental piece of progress was achieved when a peace wall along the Crumlin Road came down – to be replaced by attractive railings.

Pope visit

Word came that Pope Francis will visit Ireland in 2018 – with McGuinness absolutely certain he will cross the Border.

It wasn’t like old times: if anyone had thoughts about “Old Red Socks” or “The Antichrist” they kept them to themselves, and First Minister Arlene Foster said, if he did visit, she would meet him.

The Republic and Northern Ireland participated in the UEFA European Championships in France and came home with their sets of fans winning the joint accolade of the best supporters at the tournament.

On the sensitive social issues front, soon the Northern Executive must make a decision on whether to allow for abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.

There is further pressure to permit abortion in cases of rape and incest with also some more minor lobbying to effectively introduce Britain’s 1967 abortion act to Northern Ireland.

The so-called Bert and Ernie “gay cake” case rumbles on while the Assembly passed a motion granting pardons to gay people who were convicted when homosexuality was a crime.

If there were DUP dissenters to this proposal in the Assembly, they gritted their teeth and said nothing.

Same sex marriage

It’s probably a given that, in 2017 – if Stormont is still standing – there will be a sixth attempt to permit same sex marriage.

So, more such social battles and tensions lie ahead.

Politically, it was busy but initially busy in the sense of normal politics.

At the start of the year, Arlene Foster was formally made First Minister replacing Peter Robinson, who has remained out of the limelight – apart, that is, from when loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson alleged that he was to gain financially from the purchase, by US investment giant Cerberus, of Nama’s Northern Ireland £1.2 billion property loan portfolio.

Robinson dismissed this allegation but the manner in which Bryson was permitted to make the claim under privilege at the Stormont finance committee led to its former Sinn Féin chairman Daithí McKay being forced to stand down as an MLA, and ultimately quitting Sinn Féin.

Assembly elections were held in May and the DUP and Sinn Féin were returned again as the dominant parties and, aside from Independent unionist Minister of Justice Claire Sugden, were totally in control of the Northern Executive.

That was until December.

Astonishingly flawed

The UUP and the SDLP, as the bigger non-Executive parties, had earlier formed a formal opposition that started off ineffectually but now is finding teeth.

That’s because it was gift-wrapped a Christmas present through the astonishingly flawed renewable heat incentive scheme which came into force under Foster’s watch as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment.

It’s a massive foul-up that, in short, meant the more biomass fuel users burned, the more they earned.

The scheme could cost the taxpayer more than £400 million over the next 20 years.

It all led to the current crisis where McGuinness demanded that Foster stand aside.

In effect, it was an ultimatum and ultimatums – as everyone knows – don’t work in Northern Ireland. Foster said she wasn’t going anywhere and, so far, she has the full backing of her party.

Sinn Féin now has to decide whether to go for the nuclear option by McGuinness standing down as Deputy First Minister.

The DUP then would have to decide whether to stick with Foster or abandon her in favour of, say, the current Minister for the Economy Simon Hamilton taking over as First Minister.

Political horizon

At the moment, they are holding with Foster and therein lies a classic peace process standoff.

With Brexit, and whatever else appears on the political horizon, strong leaders are needed to be fully awake and at the helm in 2017, but Northern Ireland mightn’t have them.

Matters are complicated by the fact that McGuinness is currently in poor health and receiving medical treatment.

The big decision lies with Adams.

He has two options: one is to extract concessions from the DUP on issues such as, perhaps, the Irish language, get an inquiry and claw back some money from the disastrous “cash for ash” scheme, but leave Foster in place.

The other is to press the button and let the current Northern Executive and Assembly, like the renewable heat incentive scheme, go up in smoke.

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