Northern Ireland is, once again, facing a precipice in terms of the future of self-rule. The delicately balanced coalition has collapsed over Arlene Foster’s handling of the RHI scheme and her decision not to step aside whilst the matter is investigated. However, the wrangle over the scheme has resurfaced a range of other issues which divide the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)/Sinn Féin power-sharing executive, and an acrimonious cloud has settled over Belfast.
And so, after Martin McGuiness resigned and Sinn Fein did not nominate his successor we have circled 2nd March on our calendars as election day in the province. Many remain surprised that after decades of vicious and violent opposition, Unionists and Nationalists have come together to govern Northern Ireland in relative harmony for so long. And yet they did, perhaps united by the dislike of the prospect of a return to direct rule from Westminster, or simply just determined to prove the naysayers wrong.
Both Theresa May and Enda Kenny have urged all parties to be ‘respectful’ during the forthcoming election campaign, mindful of the fact that the DUP and Sinn Féin are likely to be the two largest parties after the ballot. In order for a new Government to be formed, these two allies and opponents in equal measure will have to find a way to work together. Both parties realise that some of these fundamental differences will have to be resolved before power-sharing can be embarked upon, but this could be easier with a different Sinn Fein representative. Martin McGuinness resigned ostensibly over the RHI scheme but will not be returning to front line politics due to ill health. Therefore, a new face could give SF a way round trickier subjects. However, they do not have much time to find a path back to Stormont. After the election, the new Assembly needs to meet within one week, and a new executive needs to be in place a further two weeks on from that.
If the leading parties decline to nominate first and deputy first ministers within that time-frame, legislation dictates that James Brokenshire calls yet another election – a move which would be deeply unpopular with the electorate, and ironically will be another cost for them to bear.
We wait to see what the future of the province’s Government will look like, but after a year of political uncertainty and unanticipated outcomes, anything is possible.