Stormont institutions under fire

 

The stability of the Stormont institutions looks increasingly precarious following fresh revelations surrounding the botched Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.

With First Minister Arlene Foster resisting both calls to step aside during an investigation process and to resign, the relationship between the two main Executive parties appears to have soured further during the Christmas recess, with Sinn Féin taking a notably harder line on the position of Foster.

The stand off between Sinn Féin’s call for Foster to step aside while an investigation is carried out and Foster’s unwillingness to vacate the position, even temporarily, has prompted talk of a potential snap election were the institutions to fall.

An accusation by Sinn Féin MLA Declan Kearney that the political process has moved towards “an unprecedented tipping point”, is evidence of the changing rhetoric of the party, who for the early stages of the mandate projected a harmonious working relationship within the new Executive.

Three new developments in the ongoing saga have played a key role in shaping the current dynamic. The first was a move by the DUP-led Department of Communities to axe an Irish language bursary scheme (The Líofa Gaeltacht Bursary Scheme) designed to aid disadvantaged youths to attend summer Irish language classes in the Donegal gaeltacht. The move by Communities Minister Paul Givan to stop the £50,000 funding of the scheme came just days after First Minister Foster survived a vote of no confidence in a specially convened sitting of the Assembly, and was described by Sinn Féin as an “attack on the Irish language and culture”.

The second major development was the revelation that while serving as Enterprise Minister, Foster had written to banks to encourage them to support the flawed scheme in 2012. In a letter, eventually released by the DUP, Foster said that she was “writing to encourage you to look favourably on approaches from businesses that are seeking finance to install renewable technologies”.

The contents of the letter also included a promise of reliable, long-term and a good return on investment and stated that the tariffs were: “grandfathered providing certainty for investors by setting a guaranteed support level for projects for their lifetime in a scheme, regardless of future reviews.”

The third development which was revealed was that of warnings that were issued to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) by a high level of companies and bodies prior to the launch of the scheme about over-incentivisation, but were unheeded.

In his New Year’s message, deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness reaffirmed his call for Foster to step aside to facilitate a judge-led independent investigation. The party believe that a public inquiry, requested by others, would take too long and cost too much money.

However, even within Sinn Féin there appears to be a discontent about their official stance. This played out in press release issued by MLA Declan Kearney on Monday (2 January), where a call for a public inquiry was later amended by the press office to read “time-framed, comprehensive, independent investigation, led by an international jurist.” Calls for a public enquiry have been echoed as high as Sinn Féin’s Vice-President Mary Lou McDonald, but the official party line is against one.

Prior to Christmas, Foster survived a vote of no confidence tabled by the SDLP despite 39 MLAs supporting the motion against 36. Foster survived on the basis that the motion did not receive the adequate cross-community backing.

In a day which will be remembered as one of the most dramatic in Northern Ireland’s history within Stormont, the fallout out of the special sitting to address the botched Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme has already spilled into 2017.

Arlene Foster’s decision to address the Assembly without the consent of deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, undermined the nature of the joint office.

Rather than back the SDLP’s motion of no confidence, Sinn Féin instead opted to propose an amendment asking for Foster to step aside temporarily while a full investigation was carried out, an amendment which was ruled inadmissible by Speaker Robin Newton. However, they opted not to participate in the vote.

The decision to allow Foster to deliver her defence of her role in the RHI scandal, without the consent of the deputy First Minister, prompted a mass walk out of MLAs except for the DUP.

Foster did apologise for flaws in her former Department’s scheme for the first time and systematically addressed allegations made by former DUP Minister Jonathan Bell. It was noted however that she did not go so far as to detail plans to reduce the multi-million pound overspend by the flawed scheme.

In response to the motion tabled by the SDLP, Foster turned on the aggression. Speaking to a largely empty chamber, she described the Opposition parties as “irrelevant and impotent”.

“It was nothing short of an attempted coup d’etat but a coup in a Carry On film, she said. What we have is trial by television to build my political gallows. This is a motion designed to fail. It reduces politics to a soap opera … or a TV drama but not a believable one at that,” she said.

Confident of her future in the role, she added: “They can’t gang up and kick out the elected leader of unionism.”

“I am here and I will be staying here,” she said. “I have acted with the highest level of integrity.”

Despite warning of “grave consequences” if Foster chose to act without the support of the deputy First Minister, following the proceedings Sinn Féin opted to say they wanted to “find a way forward through the quite clear difficulties”.

The party have outlined plans to bring their failed amendment back to the Assembly later this month.

“I have been part of these institutions since the DUP came into them almost 10 years ago and we have been through some very difficult and very challenging times – and I mean really difficult and challenging times – and I think I have been to the forefront of ensuring that these institutions, that I regard as peace institutions, continued to deliver for people and continued to deliver for the peace process,” McGuinness said.

“So what we have to do in the time ahead is not speculate about what could be a very bad outcome. My efforts are bent towards getting a good outcome.”

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