It is three weeks before Northern Ireland goes back to the polls for the second time in a year. This comes amid a huge political scandal costing almost half a billion pounds, which helped bring down the Assembly. In this blog and in the run up to the election dubbed ‘the most important vote since 1998’, we will take a look at why the Assembly collapsed so soon after last year’s vote, what policies each of the parties are campaigning on, and how they are doing in the polls.
AN INTRODUCTION TO STORMONT
The Northern Irish Assembly, based in the Stormont Estate in Belfast, is the devolved legislature for Northern Ireland and creates laws in areas not reserved by Parliament in Westminster, including health, education, justice and agriculture. Created as part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the Assembly works differently to that of the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, as it requires power to be shared between Irish nationalists and unionists. This was done in an attempt to end the decades of division in Northern Ireland following The Troubles. However, disagreements between two of the unionist parties (the Democratic Unionist Party or DUP, and the Ulster Unionist Party or UUP) and republican party Sinn Fein have made governing the region difficult at best and impossible at worst. As a result, since its creation almost 20 years ago, the Assembly has been suspended on four occasions; the longest of these lasted almost five years.
90 MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) will be elected to the Assembly in March, a significant reduction from the 108 elected last year due to a cut in numbers passed early last year. They are elected using a form of proportional representation known as the single transferable vote. Constituencies in Northern Ireland Assembly elections elect five MLAs each and voters rank the candidates in order of preference. Seats are then allocated to parties in proportion to the number of votes cast.
Before it was dissolved, the Assembly was made up of:
- Democratic Unionist Party (37 – unionist)
- Sinn Fein (28 – nationalist)
- Ulster Unionist Party (16 – unionist)
- Social Democratic and Labour Party (12 – nationalist)
- Alliance (8)
- Green (2)
- People Before Profit Alliance (2)
- Independent (2 – both unionist)
- Traditional Unionist Voice (1 – unionist)
WHY DID THE ASSEMBLY COLLAPSE?
The collapse was triggered by the resignation of Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister, in protest over the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme (RHI) which is expected to cost the taxpayer almost £500 million. His party, Sinn Fein, had criticised First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster for her role in the scandal and her unwillingness to stand aside while an investigation into the scheme takes place. Due to the nature of the power-sharing agreement, if either the First Minister or Deputy First Minister leaves their post, the other also loses their position.
When he announced his resignation in January, Mr McGuinness said that the time was right to “call a halt to the DUP’s arrogance”.
Whilst the RHI played a significant role in his resignation, Sinn Fein had also been at loggerheads with the DUP over same-sex marriage, a proposed withdrawal of funding for an Irish language programme and the vote to leave the European Union.
WHAT WAS THE RENEWABLE HEAT INCENTIVE SCHEME?
In November 2012, the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme (RHI) was set up as part of Northern Ireland’s plans to make 4% of heat come from renewables by 2015, reaching 10% by the end of the decade. The scheme offered financial incentives for businesses and other non-domestic users to install renewable heat systems, including biomass boilers and solar thermal and heat pumps.
The scheme was assigned £25 million for 2012-15, and in 2014-15, the department in fact underspent by £15 million due a lack of interest. However, applications increased significantly in April 2015 and almost 1,000 applications were received in three months, after plans were announced to cut the subsidy.
In February last year, the scheme closed amid a ‘significant financial risk to Northern Ireland block grant for the next 20 years’ and an investigation into the scheme got underway. It was revealed that the scheme had been exploited as there was no upper limit for the amount of energy that would be paid for, with claims that one farmer was aiming to claim £1 million over two decades for heating an empty shed. The scheme is projected to run £490 million overbudget.
The current DUP leader and Northern Irish First Minister Arlene Foster was the minister in charge of the scheme when it was set up, with a whistleblower allegedly warning Foster about the potential for fraud under the scheme. However, she refused calls by Sinn Fein, the UUP and SDLP to resign while investigations are underway.
WHAT DO THE POLLS SAY?
There are relatively few polls for the upcoming election at present, but the most recent one by LucidTalk shows significant gains for Sinn Fein, the UUP, the Alliance party and the Green Party.
- Democratic Unionist Party – 25.9% (-3.3%)
- Sinn Fein – 25.1% (+1.1%)
- Ulster Unionist Party – 13.9% (+1.3%)
- Social Democratic and Labour Party – 12.4% (+0.4%)
- Alliance – 8.9% (+1.9%)
- Traditional Unionist Voice – 4.3% (+1.1%)
- Green Party – 3.9% (+1.2%)
- People Before Profit Alliance – 2.7% (+0.7%)
- UKIP – 1.2% (-0.3%)
- Progressive Unionist Party – 0.8% (-0.1%)
- NI Conservatives – 0.4% (±0.0%)
- Others – 0.8% (-3.5%)
However, in the wake of polling errors in the United Kingdom and in the United States, as well as it being one of the only polls in the region, it is safe to take these projections with a pinch of salt.