Power-sharing breaks down in Northern Ireland

Stormont, the home of the Northern Ireland Assembly (photographer: Robert Young via Flickr)

By Molly Ambler

After more than a decade of joint rule between unionists and nationalists, the power sharing agreement has collapsed after Sinn Fein refused to return a Stormont executive. Sinn Fein leader, Martin McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minster with the party being given until midday last Monday to nominate a replacement. He cited the reason for his departure as ill health as well as concerns surrounding the DUP’s “arrogance” at the way they handled allegations of financial scandal.

This is in relation to the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme that was designed to encourage local businesses to use renewable heat but it appears to have been severely flawed in its implementation and has paid businesses to burn fuel. Snap elections have now been called to elect a new government. This power sharing agreement was set up through the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 after the years of trouble that had taken place in Northern Ireland. While the majority of the population of Northern Ireland initially agreed to the power sharing government, there has always been those that wish to govern independently.

The situation in Northern Ireland has been delicate over the past few decades, yet since its conception the power sharing agreement seems to have addressed most of the issues. The collapse of this agreement may, therefore result in some catastrophic consequences not just for Northern Ireland but for the rest of the UK as well. It’s immediate implication is that Theresa May might be unable to trigger article 50 as the Northern Ireland Assembly will be unable to vote to approve the plans. The leader of the anti-sectarian Alliance Party Naomi Long is reported to have said that Ms May could face a court challenge is she attempts to trigger Article 50 whilst the Northern Irish politicians are not in parliament to be able to vote on such plans.

This raises more concerns in the wake of Brexit and it may be that Brexit is delayed by several months. However, the Supreme Court are currently considering whether Stormont is actually entitled to approve the plans to trigger article 50. This would be done through a mechanism put to the devolved assemblies known as a ‘legislative consent motion’, however, they are yet to make a decision. This decision is expected in the coming days.

The reactions to the collapse of Stormont have been somewhat worrying with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland warning the challenges faced by Stormont “should not be underestimated”. If a new government returned to Stormont and decided not to engage in a power sharing agreement there is the prospect of direct rule from Westminster, however this in itself poses problems as the main nationalist opposition group, Social Democratic and Labour Party had stated that they would not except British rule as they feel Theresa May’s government no longer has any legitimacy after Brexit. Whatever happens in Northern Ireland, the events will be closely watched not only by Westminster but by the rest of the UK.

The Northerm Ireland Secretary, James Brokenshire has announced that elections will take place on 2 March.

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