McGuinness pulls plug on Foster and Stormont leading to election during Article 50 Brexit talks
By Bernard Purcell
Northern Ireland faces a double whammy of uncertainty following the resignation of Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness this week – a new election within the next two months and Brexit negotiations which ministers fear will undermine the Good Friday and Edinburgh Agreements.
Mr McGuinness quit the post he has held since 2007, first sharing power with DUP leader Ian Paisley and subsequently with Peter Robinson and, latterly, Arlene Foster. But it was Mrs Foster’s refusal to step aside during an investigation of how she, in her earlier post as Enterprise Minister, approved a Renewable Heat Initiative (RHI) that is set to cost Northern Irish taxpayers £490m.
She set up the RHI scheme in 2012 to encourage production of heat from renewable sources rather than fossil fuels but flaws in the scheme’s subsidy rate left it open to abuse as claimants could earn more cash the more fuel they burned, with the overspend estimated to be almost half-abillion pounds.
The scheme, derided as “cash for ash”, subsidised businesses more than the cost of their heating and then some. One businessman notoriously used the scheme to heat empty sheds and expected to earn millions over the life of the scheme.
Mr. McGuinness, who has been fighting a personal battle against illness and recently cancelled a planned investment trip to China with Ms Foster on doctors’ orders, had said that unless the First Minister stepped aside he would ensure she lost office. Now not only does Northern Ireland face a new election for the Stormont Assembly, and the power sharing administration it elects, but that election seems set to coincide with the triggering of Article 50 for Brexit talks.
All parties in Northern Ireland – with the notable exception of Ms Foster’s DUP – opposed Brexit in the referendum last June and were backed by a decisive majority of voters there who wished to remain in the EU.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule by 23 January on Prime Minister Theresa May’s appeal against a unanimous High Court ruling that MPs must be allowed a say on Article 50. If, as expected, it supports the lower court’s ruling Mrs May is expected to rush a very brief Bill through the Commons.
The Opposition Labour Party believes the ultra cautious Mrs May – who has a commanding and decisive lead in the opinion polls – could yet call a snap general election, despite complications of the Fixed Term Parliament law which means the next election is due no earlier than May 2020.
Mr McGuinness said Mrs Foster had a “clear conflict of interest” having overseen and approved the scheme was therefore “not credible or tenable”. “Today is the right time to call a halt to the DUP’s arrogance” and Northern Ireland’s voters should be allowed “to make their own judgement on these issues democratically at the ballot box”, he said.
He said people were “rightly outraged at the squandering of public money” and the DUP was refusing to accept demands for “robust action and accountability”. ”
The refusal of Arlene Foster to recognise the public anger or to exhibit any humility in the context of the RHI scandal is indicative of a deep-seated arrogance, which is inflicting enormous damage on the executive, the assembly and the entire body politic.”
He later told reporters: “My health has nothing to do with this whatsoever. I’ve been doing my job as is appropriate for me to do so, so health has got absolutely nothing to do with it whatsoever.”
Mrs Foster, who now now loses her First Minister role said she was “disappointed” by Mr McGuinness and questioned his motives.
“His actions have meant that, at precisely the time we need our government to be active, we will have no government and no way to resolve the RHI problems,” Ireland’s Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan said he regretted the circumstances leading to Stormont’s dissolution and the calling of an election but was mindful the RHI/Cash For Ash controversay was very much a matter for the devolved Assembly and the Executive.
Beyond that, however, he said, “Ireland is very mindful of the need to protect the integrity of the principles and institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.
“In this regard, both the effective functioning of those institutions and respecting the principles of partnership and equality are of critical importance.
“If, as appears likely, new elections to the Assembly will now be required, it behoves all parties to act responsibly in word and deed, so that the political institutions of the Agreement will not be damaged in the longer term.
“I have spoken this afternoon to the Deputy First Minister and to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. As a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, the Irish Government will continue to work with the British Government and the political parties to advance political stability, reconciliation and economic prosperity in Northern Ireland.”
Fianna Fáil Leader Micheál said he had watched the Cash for Ash scandal unfold with a growing sense of dismay.
“It was my hope that an agreement could be reached to facilitate a robust inquiry into this scandal.”
“However, the decision of Mr McGuinness to resign his position and Sinn Féin’s demand for new elections means that will not now happen.
“Instead, the stage is now being set for a bitter election campaign that will not address any of the issues that led us to this point, and the future of the institutions is thrown into serious doubt.”
He said Sinn Féin’s decision to pull the plug and demanding fresh elections did little to address any of the underlying problems including limiting Northern Irish and British taxpayers’ exposure.