Deepest Political Crisis For A Decade

With hours to go to the deadline to reach an agreement which would save the Stormont institutions, Unionist political commentator and former Blanket columnist Dr John Coulter examines who will benefit from an Assembly election and why Sinn Fein needs to spark a snap poll. This is his latest Ireland Eye column for Tribune magazine.

Who will blink first and provoke a snap Stormont poll? That’s the key question which could be decided on Manic Monday – 16 January – when the Northern Ireland Assembly returns from its festive break.

The main focus has been the disastrous economic fallout from the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme, which is estimated to cost the Ulster taxpayer between £400 million and £600 million over the next 20 years.

While the RHI scheme was effectively managed in Britain, in Northern Ireland it has become a massive financial blunder, dubbed the ‘Ash for Cash’ scandal. 

The debacle has sparked a bitter war of words between the Stormont Executive’s two main coalition partners – Arlene Foster’s Democratic Unionists and Martin McGuinness’s Sinn Fein.

Both parties have produced proposals on how the scandal should be probed. Ideally, the DUP would like Westminster to pick up the multi-million pound tab. 

But for Sinn Fein – which currently operates its traditional abstentionist policy of Commons seats – a snap Stormont poll would be the best option. 

Sinn Fein wants Foster to step aside as First Minister while the probe into what went wrong with the RHI scheme; the DUP has closed ranks to protect her, with Foster dogmatically refusing to dance to Sinn Fein’s tune.

With the end of the festive recess, the Stormont institutions are facing their deepest political crisis for a decade. Ironically, Sinn Fein needs to cash in on a DUP double blunder. Firstly, the DUP is taking the blame for not placing a cap on the RHI scheme which could have prevented the multi-million pound debacle.

But lurking in the background is the fallout for the DUP of the 2006 St Andrews Agreement and the coveted post of First Minister. 

Under the original 1998 Good Friday Agreement mainly negotiated by the rival Ulster Unionists, the First Minister’s post went to the largest political designation – unionist or nationalist.

When the DUP eclipsed the UUP in 2003, Ian Paisley senior successfully got the allocation of First Minister changed to the largest party in the Assembly – the St Andrews Agreement, which saw Paisley senior become First Minister in 2007.

With the Unionist voter community in potential disarray over RHI, Sinn Fein will never have a better electoral chance to snatch the First Minister’s post. It needs to trigger a pre-Easter snap Stormont election.

If Sinn Fein opts out of the poll route to essentially save the DUP’s political neck, republicans will have to wait until the next planned Stormont General Election in 2021. 

That could prove a poor decision for Sinn Fein as 2021 marks the centenary of Northern Ireland and is a key date in the unionist calendar – a factor that could become valuable electoral mileage for the DUP.

2021 also marks a difficult anniversary for Sinn Fein – the Irish Civil War in the early 1920s when republican butchered republican over the Anglo-Irish Treaty which brought about partition in Ireland. 

More anti-Treaty IRA members were killed in that civil war by the pro-Treaty Free State Army than died fighting the British Army’s Black and Tans during the earlier War of Independence.

While Sinn Fein can argue, too, it could afford to wait until 2021 because the rival moderate nationalist SDLP has equally failed to make a political impact through the new official Opposition at Stormont, Sinn Fein will be privately worried by the decision of the Republic’s main opposition party, Fianna Fail, to contest elections in Northern Ireland by 2021.

Since it became the leading nationalist party in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein has fought an uphill struggle to dilute its past links as the apologist of the Provisional IRA. 

If Sinn Fein is to fend off any concerted political assault from Fianna Fail, it must convince the influential Catholic middle class that it is a truly democratic movement which is in no way governed by the IRA’s ruling Army Council. 

In past elections in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein has always produced the big stick to beat the SDLP that the former was organised as an all-island movement, while the SDLP was only limited to the northern six counties.

But Fianna Fail is now an all-island party and poses a significant poll threat to Sinn Fein. This will force Sinn Fein to nominate more so-called ‘draft dodgers’ as election runners – namely candidates who have no known links to the IRA. 

The dilemma for the unionist community is that the RHI scandal could spark a further wave of voter apathy among pro-Union supporters, which would benefit nationalist and republican parties as well as the centrist Greens and Alliance. Sinn Fein could take the First Minister’s post simply because not enough unionists voted.

With the UUP adopting a liberal unionist stance, the DUP is calculating that RHI will not see large scale defections to the UUP. Likewise, the DUP must run candidates with no clear links to RHI to stave off an electoral meltdown. 


  1. Progress comes one funeral at a time.

  2. Can anyone explain to me why an amendment to the RHI scheme making rebates subject to 'reasonable usage' couldn't or can't be introduced?

    Also, is it just another cyber myth that a shed with eight boilers and several tons of wood-chip went up in flames in Fermanagh recently?

    And finally, on the political front, am I incorrect in thinking that further voter apathy coupled with a reduction in the number of seats to be contested (some 18 less) is in all likelihood going to ensure that the current DUP/SF dominance remains relatively unchanged?

  3. Daithi D

    Progress comes one funeral at a time.

    Thought that hilarious. given the demographics or Prod and RC populations. FF entering the fray in time for the 2021 census when RC's will in all probability have a majority in the wee 6 will be welcomed with open arms by unionists I imagine. Split the taig vote 3 ways.

    As for Stormont 1st Minister, who really gives a fuck at this stage, they are all driving blind folded.

  4. "Likewise, the DUP must run candidates with no clear links to RHI to stave off an electoral meltdown." So that's Foster out.

    What about the not so clear links and I am thinking joint ministers, power sharing etc etc SF? Can anyone realistically believe that McGuinness and SF did not know what was going on? I am sure they did especially when that amount of money was going begging. If they knew about RHI to name but one scandal and kept quiet, saving the info for a rainy day such as now, some might say that's cute hoor political strategy, a smoking gun is better than the real thing. I think they knew and are culpable not only in RHI scandal but also NAMA and not least propping up the State for the past 20 years with nothing to show but austerity. The heat is too great and they are getting out of the kitchen.
    Can anyone in SF explain to me the party's raison detre, their policies and how they hope to achieve a united Ireland?

  5. Haha Larry, I paraphrased Max Planck. Demographics is one thing, but dissemination and adoption (or not) of new ideas is another. Some owe their status to the failed,old ways and are not motivated to seek change.This applied in all fields, but its quite stark in politics, which hasnt really changed, the technological advances in that period are used to service the old methods, and not new structures or modes.As such, I find it hard to get exited about an election in the North, or any election.

  6. James Quigley

    Your points are bang on the nail. People are livid at the 'pile-up' of scandals that no one seems to have noticed. There is an angle that has not been considered here. The British government has been pumping money into the North via a 'power (sharing) hose' to both sides of the community via their political reps' and until now it has kept a lid on things. The DUP were simply unsatisfied with the flow of cash and indulged in scam after scam. Red Sky NAMA and now Ash for Cash which are the only ones we know of since the GFA. I suspect the SF silence on all of this is down to them getting their own share over the years. Jonathan Bell lost his nerve and outed the lot of them, not wanting to be Arlene's fall-guy. Then Givan and his slap down to the taigs over a poxy £50,000 was an insult SF realised their 'smouldering' electorate would simply not take. Now they are getting off their croppy-boy collective Armani knees and pretending to stand up to the DUP ....PLEASE !! spare us that crap.

    Daithi D

    It is not about change, it is about appeasing 'terrorists' and criminals on BOTH sides with a cash flow. We know all about the 'pan nationalist front'.... have a look at the 'pan unionist front' in action.