Northern Irish Elections

Image of Martin McGuinness

It’s election time again in Northern Ireland, only months after the previous assembly elections in May. The cause of these new elections is the resignation of Sinn Féin deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, resulting in the dissolution of the power sharing agreement between Northern Ireland’s largest unionist and nationalist parties.

McGuinness’ resignation letter mentions numerous frustrations with the largest unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and notably First Minister Arlene Foster, who oversaw the implementation of the Renewable Heating Incentive scheme during her time as Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. The botched RHI scheme, dubbed “Cash For Ash”, will cost Northern Ireland almost half a billion pounds.

The RHI scheme allowed for the continuous and unrestricted compensation for the burning of wood pellet boilers. For every £1 of fuel burnt, one would be repaid £1.60. The scheme was launched in November 2012 to help non-domestic organisations cover the costs of switching to more renewable energy, but was extended to the domestic sector in 2014. The scheme was closed in February 2016.

Over the course of the scheme whistle-blowers contacted Foster regarding flaws in the scheme and were ignored. Allegations were made that Foster intervened to prevent closure of the scheme by her ministerial successor Jonathan Bell, and also that Foster had her name stricken from records implicating her in the disaster. It has since come to light that some DUP advisors had personally benefitted from the scheme.

Following the controversy Arlene Foster refused to step down as First Minister, despite the blatant conflict of interest which was highlighted in McGuinness’ resignation letter. Foster even claimed that some calls for her to resign were misogynistic.

In addition to the conflict of interest, McGuinness’ letter also makes reference to the DUP’s disrespect and prejudice towards the nationalist community, women, the LGBT community and ethnic minorities. This is evidenced by the DUP’s axing of a £50,000 grant for schoolchildren to learn the Irish language, the criminalisation of sex work, and their pledge to continuously deny same-sex marriage.

Replacing McGuinness as Sinn Féin leader will be Health Minister Michelle O’Neill, part of the post-ceasefire generation of Sinn Féin politicians. In one of her first acts as Health Minister O’Neill abolished a ban on gay and bisexual men from giving blood.

Northern Ireland is decades behind much of the UK in terms of civil rights. Abortion is still criminal except in extreme circumstances, and is unlikely to change if the fanatically religious DUP are to remain in charge.

Northern Irish students studying in Scotland are eligible to vote in the upcoming elections, and postal and proxy vote applications must be submitted by 5pm on Friday 10 February. Application forms are available on the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland website.

[Jimmy Donaghy -@JimmyDonagee]

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