On 21 November the Northern Ireland Executive Office issued a press release titled: “This is what delivery looks like. No gimmicks. No grandstanding”. The release was sent out to mark six months since the forming of the new Executive. Within the lengthy statement, one quote stuck out: “It’s hardly a secret that our two parties come from very different places and have very different ideologies. However, that should not and will not stop us working together on day-to-day, bread and butter issues.”
Less than a month later and the revelations around the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal began to pick apart the threads of co-operation on day-to-day, bread and butter issues and Northern Ireland now faces a fresh election on 2 March.
One week after the resignation of deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, which marked the first collapse of devolved government in Northern Ireland since 2007, Secretary of State James Brokenshire made the then inevitable announcement that an election would be held.
The multi-million pound overspend, overseen by Arlene Foster’s Department, was a major factor, but was by no means the only issue, which triggered the political breakdown according to Sinn Féin. The party contends that “respect, equality and integrity” have been conspicuously absent within DUP’s style of politics. In forcing the election and by subsequently refusing to re-nominate a new deputy First Minister the party emphasised their assertion that there will be no return to the “status quo”.
A number of significant issues should determine that the election is fought on alternative battlegrounds, even if the outcome has the potential to remain largely the same. These include almost weekly revelations surrounding RHI and the role played by some members of the DUP, the lack of an Executive budget, Brexit and the replacement of Martin McGuinness as Sinn Féin’s northern leader by Michelle O’Neill. However, probably the most obvious change in dynamic will be the reduction of 18 MLAs at Stormont to a total of 90. Legislation passed in 2016 stated that each constituency in Northern Ireland would be reduced to five rather than six representatives at the next Assembly election, although few predicted it would happen as soon.
Already some major political figures have chosen not to contest the upcoming election, Sinn Féin’s Caitríona Ruane and the DUP’s Alastair Ross, Sammy Douglas and the UUP’s Ross Hussey. In the aftermath of the election the parties will have a period of weeks to hammer out an agreement for the return of the Assembly. The consequence of a fallout of these negotiations would appear to be a return to direct rule.