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Upside of the cash-for-ash scandal

13 January 2017

Paul Vallely is reassured by the resumption of normal politics in Northern Ireland

IT IS with a peculiar satisfaction that I have watched the messy unfolding of recent political events in Northern Ireland. This is not to discount the seriousness of the crisis into which the region has been plunged: an unnecessary general election is likely to take place just six months after the last. But there is something comfortingly normal about the whole affair.

The election comes because Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister, the former IRA member Martin McGuinness, has resigned in protest over a botched energy scheme that could cost taxpayers nearly half a billion pounds. Under the power-sharing agreement reached in 2007, if the nationalist leader in the power-sharing coalition goes, the Unionist First Minister automatically loses his or her job. Mr McGuinness has triggered the crisis precisely to remove the First Minister, Arlene Foster, who was responsible for the disastrous Renewable Heat Incentive.

The scandal is the stuff of politics everywhere. That is what is so reassuring about it. The government has not fallen over some grave constitutional issue or security crisis that endangers the decade of peace and stability which the 2007 agreement has produced. That is the kind of peril that my 20 years of covering Northern Ireland, off and on, at the height of the Troubles might have led me to fear.

Instead, the row is over something gloriously domestic: a scheme to get Northern Ireland to produce ten per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, but one that has been mishandled to the point where one farmer has reportedly tried to collect £1 million, over 20 years, for heating an empty shed. It has become known as the cash-for-ash scandal.

There is a great deal of money involved. But the rumpus surrounding the crisis is reminiscent of the kind of politics that has led to the collapse of coalition governments in Italy, or Israel, or elsewhere around the world, over the years.

There is more to it than cash for ash. The unexpectedly amiable coalition formed in the early years led Mr McGuinness and the Revd Ian Paisley, at the helm of the power-sharing arrangement, to be known as “the Chuckle Brothers”. But, since then, tensions between their two parties, Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party, have grown over a range of issues, including a failure to finance inquests into killings during the Troubles, and a recent decision to end funding for an Irish-language project.

Mr McGuinness’s decision to resign leaves Northern Ireland in a mess. The election might produce a result that continues the stalemate, but it creates room for a new generation to come through; Mr McGuinness looks seriously ill, and it is unlikely that he can take part in whatever comes next. And the province’s more moderate nationalist and unionist parties, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists — both of whom have positioned themselves in opposition rather than as minority members of the government — might well improve their standing in the process.

No one is saying that it will be easy. But normal politics has resumed in Northern Ireland. And, after its troubled past, that, in itself, is to be counted a blessing.


Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics and Media at the University of Chester. www.paulvallely.com

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