This is essential viewing for those of you studying Northern Ireland Politics. It has been a busy year and this web page helps you get your head around a lot of what went on in 2016.
For a short time.. even a day or so it seemed as if the impossible had happened.. Throughout the noise and anger of the Assembly parties mounting up against Arlene Foster - the one group of critics conspicuous by their very obvious absence were Sinn Fein. Instead, at the very beginning, words of caution flowed allowing Arlene Foster to appear to have the continued 'trust' of their 'Executive partners' Could this be the start of something new - a genuine partnership at the heart of government? A post fresh start agreement which was indeed a Fresh start? This illusion however proved temporary as business as usual resumed. Sinn Fein soon found it hard to stay out of the fray or else they would be mutually condemed. To add to this the DUP played party politics with the issue announcing a statement from the First Minister. This was always to be a joint office so such unilateral actions quickly poisoned any political will on behalf of Sinn Fein.
Instead of looking like a political turning point therefore the Executive looks as shaky as ever. The DUP are clearly isolated and this was demonstrated by a mass walkout from the chamber as Arlene Foster got up to make her statement. She claimed this was trial by television however it is clear that all is not rosy in the garden within the Executive.. This illustrates where limitations lie within a coalition executive constrained by power sharing. The office of the Executive should have a JOINT First and Deputy First Minister in charge but this has obviously been overruled on this occasion. The Collective responsibility is also still lacking. What had seemed a somewhat cosy arrangement following the Fresh start agreement seems to be unravelling. The test will be in how it copes with the implications of the Cash for Ash scandal.
The past year has saw the emergence of Northern Ireland's new and official opposition. The UUP and then the SDLP rejected the offer of Executive posts and declared themselves Official Opposition parties following the 2016 Assembly election. This was a significant step in the new Northern Ireland institutions and a major one in the road to democracy. Sinn Fein and the DUP initially scoffed at this and declared it a betrayal of the Good Friday Agreement. They 'endured' any Opposition motion or Opposition days with mild annoyance and frustration and seemed to not take the Opposition seriously.
The DUP and SDLP initially worked on their opposition roles tentatively. This produced a mixed and confused message as the first main opposition day was trumpeted as a victory yet saw the two parties with varying approaches to the issues. Since this they have coordinated a great deal and have even had the sight of Colum Eastwood at the UUP conference. It is the present revelations of the Cash for Ash scandal which is galvanising the two parties into a much more serious prospect of an opposition - The two parties sense the need to hold the DUP to account for this monumental failure of government. This is something they both agree on which helps them form a combined effort in their approach.
There is no doubt a lot to gain for the opposition parties. They are now not in the executive which is indeed tainted by scandal and has an air of incompetence. They stand to gain from this in reputation. The UUP can indeed in future perhaps gain seats as the previously unstoppable DUP juggernaut has shown itself to indeed be vulnerable. Only in November the DUP were claiming UUP scalps as defectors crossed into their ranks. Perhaps the tide may turn in the UUP's favour
However, the UUP and SDLP must understand that they cannot be wholly absolved from this scandal. They were in the Executive when this was being decided. They were present at committee meetings into this and could and should have asked questions regarding this. Was this a failure of scrutiny and a failure of accountability which the NI Assembly as a whole needs to ask questions about?
If you had a question on the DUP how could you include Cash for Ash :
Occasionally there comes a topic which CANNOT be ignored for the Politics course and the so called Cash for Ash or Renewable Heat Initiative (RHI) scandal is one such topic! You have to understand this as it can be used for so many of your topic areas from executive to assembly to opposition to Speaker to Parties.
What is the Cash for Ash scandal?
The Cash for Ash scandal is a scandal involving a Renewable Heat initiative scheme set up by the Northern Ireland Executive and in particular Arlene Foster who was Minister of Enterprise Trade and investment at the time. It was set up to encourage the growth of renewable heat in Northern Ireland in place of fossil fuels. The goal was to have 10% of the country using renewable alternatives by 2020. Companies or individuals would be encouraged to use environmental sources such as solar or biomass boilers. They were given financial incentives for setting these up. They were also to be given generous subsidies over 20 years for the schemes usage. Up to this point everything seems OK.
What is the catch?
The catch in this case is that the Northern Ireland scheme at some point veered away from the same scheme running successfully in Great Britain. The Northern Ireland scheme somehow removed the all important upper payment limit paid out to those involved in the scheme. This means that in Northern Ireland participants can get paid large amounts of money for keeping their burners on constantly. It could essentially net participants hundreds of thousands of pounds of tax payers money simply by keeping burning. One farmer was estimated to make nearly £1 million over 20 years by heating an empty barn! A Ferrari garage in Belfast is also running the scheme.
What are the financial implications?
While the UK government intends to fund £600 million of the costs to be accrued over 20 years, the NI Executive will have to foot a £490 million bill over this time - This is 3% of the annual block grant every year for 20 years. It is an act of self inflicted incompetence of staggering proportions which was only revealed through the actions of a whistleblower and the BBC.
What are the political implications?
The political implications of this scandal are immense! Firstly the credibility of the whole NI Assembly as an institution is at stake. The First Minister Arlene Foster is very much in the spotlight as the person resonsible for this scheme at the time and is being heavily scrutinised and put under pressure to stand down. The Executive itself has been shaken to its core with major disagreements apparent with Sinn Ferin over the scandal and how to deal with it. The DUP is under immense strain as one of its members, Jonathan Bell, very publicly blamed Arlene Foster for the schemes failures in an interview with Stephen Nolan which rocked the seemingly unrockable DUP. The Speaker has been heavily criticised over his actions or inactions regarding the crisis and the Opposition is making waves for the first time as the whole Executive is put under intense pressure. I will put each of these into detail
KEY EXPLANIER GUIDES TO CASH FOR ASH
The highest court in the land critics say should be a microcosm of the United Kingdom in terms of gender, race and regionality. After all this court is responsible for making decisions of the highest order which could affect every citizen. Yet the make up is overwhelmingly male, white and Oxbirdge educated. This BBC weblink investigates the issue.
We don't look at the Supreme Court until later in the next term but DO pay attention to the news. One of the key areas you look at is the role of the Judiciary in political matters. There is perhaps no greater case than at present. The subject is BREXIT. There has been a challenge made that the UK cannot leave the EU without Parliaments vote on the issue as Parliament is sovereign. The fact that a majority in the country voted in the referendum to leave is at odds therefore with the Parliament which contained a REMAIN majority. Big questions will be answered which could have major implications..
Mr John Wishart -