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Northern Ireland's decades-old peace agreement is collapsing

by Lara Whyte
Jan 10 2017, 1:13pm

Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has resigned in protest over the handling of the ‘Cash for Ash’ Renewable Heating Initiative (RHI) scandal that is due to cost taxpayers £490 million ($595 million).

McGuinness explained in his resignation letter that his party, Sinn Féin, would not be nominating another candidate to fill his role. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement which ended the 30-year civil conflict in Northern Ireland stipulates that the power-sharing Executive must be made up of the biggest parties from both nationalist and unionist representatives, and so the resignation of McGuinness will force its dissolution.

It’s now assumed that Northern Ireland’s regional parliament will move to enable the dissolution of the DUP-Sinn Féin power-sharing executive. The U.K. government will likely then call a new election – probably in around six weeks.

Former Irish Republican Army (IRA) commander McGuinness did not hold back in his criticism of Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster: “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.”

McGuinness also used his statement to attack Foster’s party, the Democratic Unionists (DUP), for “never fully embracing” the principles of the 1998 peace agreement, for having a “negative attitude” towards nationalism and Irish identity, and for “prejudice” against women, ethnic minorities, and members of the LGBT community.

Foster said she was disappointed by the decision, which she described as “political, not principled,” and said her party would “always defend unionism.” She also warned that any forthcoming election would be “brutal.”

In 2012, Foster was the minister responsible for introducing and overseeing the RHI scheme. Designed to increase the use of renewable energy sources, it worked by offering large incentives to non-domestic customers to build biomass boilers to burn wood pellets: For every £1 spent by those on the scheme, £1.60 was given back.

Unlike in other parts of the U.K. where versions of the scheme were rolled out, the team administering the Northern Irish version – overseen by Foster – failed to put any caps on the maximum amount that could be paid out. Anyone registered on the scheme is entitled to the payments for the next 20 years. Concerns about predicted costs were raised as early as 2013, but the scheme was not suspended until February 2016 by Foster’s predecessor Jonathan Bell, who claims his earlier attempts to close it were blocked by DUP party advisors. In the months leading up to the suspension of the scheme, a final rush of applicants signed up. 98% of the 1,946 businesses that applied were approved, with 984 in the final three months of the scheme. A whistleblower last year alleged that one farmer installed boilers to heat empty barns, which will make him a tidy £1M.

Foster has consistently professed her innocence, calling those attempting to get her to stand down misogynists.

In December the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), the nationalist opposition party, proposed a vote of no confidence in Foster in an attempt to force her out. Sinn Fein abstained from the vote, meaning Foster survived.

Opposition parties also criticized the decision by Sinn Féin to pull the plug, saying a new election will delay the inquiry, and their ability to curtail the costs. Opposition unionist UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said the resignation and any snap election means that the DUP have got off the hook. “Sinn Féin should have stayed – to hold the First Minister to account, to force a public inquiry, and to vote on the much-needed cost controls on the scheme. Instead, they have prioritised self-interest, as always.”

The SDLP leader Colum Eastwood also criticized Foster’s “arrogance” but said the resignation means those behind the scandal can enjoy “a two month break.” He continued: “It ensures no immediate consequences for Arlene Foster, no emergency legislation to cap costs and no investigation into potential corruption. Each and every day this scandal is costing taxpayers £85,000.”

Despite the fallout from McGuinness’s resignation, and barring any unexpected developments, the DUP and Sinn Féin are still likely to remain as Northern Ireland’s biggest parties following any forthcoming election.

Sinn Fein