Northern Ireland: disintegrating again, or time for reassessment?

BY SAM BAKER

Political conflict between the unionist and nationalist sides of Northern Irish politics has been a longstanding issue, with many fearing that the province would be plunged back into a period similar to that of “The Troubles”. Although the situation isn’t quite as bad as this; it is worth questioning whether or not it is time for institutional change in the political system, and whether the recent political disagreement between the two major sides fuels this need for reassessment.

The recent RHI scandal which involved the First Minister Arlene Foster, resulted in the resignation of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, and signals an end to a 10-year power-sharing agreement between the DUP and Sinn Féin. It was Foster’s handling of the energy scheme, labelled “cash for ash” which has resulted in many calling for her resignation. Controls on the RHI scheme’s cost were not introduced by Foster, who headed the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment at the time. McGuinness’s resignation as a result of Foster’s actions and the rhetoric which followed, makes it likely that an election is now on the cards.

A key issue for the Sinn Féin as a result of McGuinness’s resignation, is that there is no clear successor for the role of Deputy First Minister. The likes of Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams, although controversial figures in their own right, were able to unify the Sinn Féin and sustain a strong message. Therefore, it would appear that for the next Deputy First Minister (and de facto leader of Sinn Féin in the North) the challenge will be to fill a role filled by politicians who had direct links to the political and social strife of many in the nationalist community.

The DUP face a similar challenge, whereby the recent implementation of Arlene Foster as First Minister, has not been met with widespread support, especially after the controversial revelations regarding the botched energy scheme. Foster’s response to demands for her resignation, was to label them as “misogynistic”, and although the nature of some of these demands were indeed of this nature; it would have been beneficial for her to have acknowledged that her actions were not completely legitimate.

The issue for Northern Ireland in the coming months, is the fact that many politicians who had direct links to the political turmoil of “The Troubles” and therefore a link with many voters, no longer have a role in politics. Over the past year each of the two main party’s will have lost a single politician who unified the party and kept the party line, Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson respectively. Although this allows for the younger generation to take on these roles, it still must be questioned whether or not the political system is viable anymore to accommodate a new generation of voters. Especially as many of the electorate weren’t alive or would have direct links to the violent political conflict which existed during “The Troubles”. Therefore, one must question whether the power-sharing assembly in Northern Ireland is still workable for an electorate who were born outside of the violent conflict.

A new generation of voters and to an extent a new generation of politicians in Northern Ireland, represents an opportunity for a reassessment of the current institutions in place. The current climate for political upheaval caused by events such as Brexit creates an atmosphere for reconsideration of many aspects of Northern Ireland’s position within the UK, especially in relation to the border with the Republic of Ireland.  A reassessment of the current institutions in place may prove beneficial to a current system which relies heavily on Westminster and can only be described as “stop and start”.

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