Belfast Telegraph

RHI fiasco: Collapse leaves Northern Ireland without a voice as Brexit looms

By Colm Kelpie

The resignation of Martin McGuinness and the effective collapse of power-sharing is undoubtedly bad timing.

A snap election is now almost certain, harkening a political vacuum at a time of intense uncertainty for these islands.

Without the executive up and running, Northern Ireland's interests in terms of Brexit will fall squarely to a Conservative Government to defend, as it prepares to enter formal negotiations in two months. The so-called 'cash-for-ash' issue is of importance to taxpayers given the mounting costs, but it is a distraction from the frankly much larger and more critical issue of the UK's EU withdrawal.

The McGuinness resignation took effect from 5pm last night, meaning Arlene Foster ceased in her role also.

Sinn Fein has seven days to nominate a replacement for Mr McGuinness, which it already said it won't be doing. The Secretary of State James Brokenshire then has to call an election "within a reasonable period". But it's not clear how long that might be, and the Northern Ireland Office couldn't shed much light when contacted.

Mr Brokenshire was locked in telephone calls last night over the issue, and is expected to make a more detailed statement to parliament in London today.

When an election is called, the process will run for six weeks during which time there will be no government operating in Northern Ireland.

And that means that there is a serious risk that the region's voice will not be fully heard during that period in terms of the crucial issues facing it as Theresa May prepares to trigger Article 50 by the end of March, or potentially even sooner.

Cabinet ministers and senior officials in Dublin have already expressed frustration that the political crisis in Northern Ireland would hamper attempts to secure the best possible deal for the Republic.

Dublin sources at both Cabinet and official level have warned that fresh elections in Northern Ireland could lead to a prolonged period in which control is transferred back to Westminster.

London repeatedly states that it is focused on the complex issue facing the island of Ireland as it prepares for the Brexit talks, but considering the apparent confusion within Whitehall, epitomised last week by the resignation of the UK's ambassador to Brussels, Northern Ireland is likely quite far down the political agenda.

Call me cynical, but even after an election, it's very likely that the two main parties - Sinn Fein and the DUP - will simply be put back into office. And the problem of course is that the two have opposing views on the EU question - the DUP backs Brexit while Sinn Fein is against it.

That has always hampered the need for the island to speak with one voice on this issue.

Northern Ireland's business community has already been voicing its annoyance at events.

Nick Coburn, President of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said there was now a "very deep sense of frustration at the instability which now characterises our political institutions".

There is a positive, at least.

The current crisis has not been caused by legacy issues of the Troubles, but a good old fashioned political scandal.

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