This article appeared originally in the News Letter, 12 January 2016.
The Renewable Heat Incentive is the superficial reason that there will almost certainly be an early election in Northern Ireland, less than a year after the last poll. The deeper cause is a broken political system that entrenches sectarian headcounts and encourages parties to provoke endless mini crises, when they don’t get their way.
Politics at Stormont is stuck in a repeating loop, where periods of inactive stability are followed by tantrums, emergency talks and ambiguous, meaningless ‘agreements’ that promise things will be sorted out properly later. So far, this pattern has allowed the power-sharing institutions to lurch on unsteadily, but, until it is broken, people here have few prospects of competent government, a thriving economy or a harmonious society.
In a normal political system, an election would allow the public to hold its political leaders to account and, potentially, vote a new set into office. In Northern Ireland, the St Andrews’ Agreement ensures that the biggest question at the ballot box is always whether a unionist or nationalist becomes First Minister, rather than issues of policy or competence.
After this election, the prospects that an Executive will be formed quickly - even a divided, ineffective Executive - are remote. Sinn Fein has vowed not to nominate ministers, until negotiations take place on a grim shopping list of demands that it previously promised its voters, but failed to deliver.
These include action on so-called “legacy” inquests, designed to focus investigations into Northern Ireland’s violent past on the comparatively small number of deaths caused by soldiers and policeman, rather than the vast majority of unsolved crimes perpetrated by IRA terrorists. Few things could damage Northern Ireland’s society more profoundly than indulging republicans’ perverse view of the Troubles, which legitimises a ruthless campaign of political murder and demonises those who tried to prevent chaos and civil war.
The dynamics of this crisis are drearily familiar from St Andrews in 2007, the Hillsborough talks on policing and justice in 2010, the Stormont House Agreement in 2014 and 2015’s Fresh Start Agreement. This loop has to be broken now, or the same thing will happen again, sooner or later, and again after that, rinse and repeat.
It is not impossible to reform the Stormont system successfully. The independent MLA, John McCallister, suggested that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, who wield exactly the same powers anyway, should both be known simply as “First Ministers”. Formally recognising their “co-equal” status could draw much of the sectarian poison from election campaigns and enable smaller parties to challenge the DUP and Sinn Fein.
McCallister’s proposal was rejected, because it threatened the status quo, but he did pilot through the Assembly legislation that led to an official opposition at Stormont, albeit one that is weak and voluntary. The UUP and the SDLP declined to join the Executive, after the last election, and they are now supposed to hold the Executive to account. Unfortunately their performance during the RHI crisis was underwhelming.
The two parties called for Arlene Foster’s resignation and attacked her vehemently in press releases, but failed to master the detail of RHI or uncover relevant new facts about the scheme’s operation. Journalists did far more to investigate the scandal, while, at the Assembly, Jim Allister analysed its legal ramifications more effectively.
The scandal was a symptom of a system of devolved government that focuses on winkling the maximum amount of cash from the Treasury in London, then arguing about how it is divided between the two main perceived communities. RHI means that the public have rarely been so cynical, apathetic and disdainful about local politics.
If our politicians have any shame or humility left, maybe their current appalling reputation provides a slim window of opportunity to finally implement a workable system in Northern Ireland.
After the election, the Government could refuse to facilitate ‘hot-house’ talks unless serious institutional reforms are discussed seriously. For too long, Westminster has indulged the fiction that power-sharing in Northern Ireland is successful and stable.
That means, at a minimum, joint first ministers, rather than a first and deputy first minister, and beefed up powers for the opposition, so that there is a genuine alternative to the Executive. It may also means finally holding the parties to their promises on integrating society, rather than simply talking about it. The alternative is to continue the succession of crises, controversies and waste.