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Assembly election 2017: You pay your money, you take your choice

Polls in Northern Ireland have tended to focus on Orange and Green constitutional issues. Now cash is king, writes Chris Ryder

In a conventional democracy, money lies at the very heart of the pitches that politicians make during their campaigning for votes at election times: how to raise it; how to spend it.

But for generations here in Northern Ireland, money has rarely been a major electoral issue and has frequently never figured at all.

Instead, the political process has predominantly focused on the rival Orange and Green constitutional issues.

This time, however, it is different. Despite the rival parties loudly beating their tribal drums and promoting largely unfounded scaremongering about the damage the other side would do if they were to get unfettered power, there is convincing anecdotal evidence that, for once, the distraction tactics are not working.

Whether that will cause committed voters to break the allegiances of a lifetime, or encourage the nearly half of the apathy-struck electorate who don't bother voting, to turn out remains to be seen when the counts begin on Friday, March 3.

But what is already abundantly clear is that the candidates and their canvassers are having a torrid time on the doorsteps explaining away a series of unparalleled financial scandals and the partisan exploitation of public money after an unprecedented run of damaging revelations.

While, so far, no individual has been charged, or convicted, of actual criminal conduct, there is a judicial inquiry and a number of police investigations under way, while the catch-cry of perceived corruption hangs over the suspended Stormont institutions like the pungent smell of springtime slurry from the fields.

In this Assembly election, only nine months or so after the last one and four years earlier than planned, the big issue is, therefore, not about the sanctity, or otherwise, of the border and the Union, but about the integrity and competence of both the DUP and Sinn Fein, who have in effect governed jointly for the last decade.

The present crisis was ignited by the disclosure that a scheme designed to promote more efficient use of energy had careered out of budgetary control and was set to impose a crippling £500m levy on the Northern Ireland budget for many years to come.

Those enrolled in the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme were being paid far more than the actual cost of fuel for their biomass boilers, enabling them to get their heat at a vast profit.

When the debacle came to light, Arlene Foster, on whose ministerial watch the flawed initiative was developed, sought to distance herself from blame by insisting it was unreasonable to expect her to be on top of every "jot and tittle" in her department.

As a trickle of damaging details steadily became a torrent, Foster mounted a high horse and refused to stand aside for a few weeks while an investigation into the scheme was carried out. Sinn Fein, she said, would not dictate any terms to her.

However, Martin McGuinness, who had given her several chances to reconsider, finally resigned as joint First Minister, bringing Foster down with him. The implosion forced a new Stormont election.

As the parties once again trudged around the doorsteps, they encountered a disenchanted electorate. After two decades of "peace", there was a general feeling that the dividends had not trickled down to the former hard areas, where social and economic deprivation was most acute. Moreover, as the dogs in the street knew, substantial amounts of public money were being channelled to so-called "community" groups, whose members were all too often daytime activists and night-time vigilantes aligned to various self-appointed paramilitary groups.

Hostility to the political parties was exacerbated by a series of money scandals, which seemed only to benefit a charmed circle of property developers and bankers.

There were sustained revelations about exploitative public housing contracts, insider dealing, dubious expenses claims, bribes being exchanged in brown paper bags, offshore bank accounts and undisclosed donations to political parties.

Grants schemes were set up to benefit language groups, bands and community halls and extravagantly overspent.

Over the last few days, the DUP has become embroiled in yet another money scandal for acting as a middle-man for as much as £250,000 in secret donations from EU Leave campaigners in London exploiting the non-disclosure of political donations here.

While the DUP was at the forefront of this firestorm, Sinn Fein, which was far more nimble at obscuring its under-the-counter transactions, was faced with questions about £700,000 being channelled to Research Services Ireland (now closed down) for work that never materialised.

Similarly, public money was paid to "cultural" organisations as rent for accommodation used by the Sinn Fein organisation.

It is already clear that there will be no rapid reinstatement of the devolved administration - whatever the outcome of the imminent election.

Even the most optimistic politicians can see nothing but a vacuum ahead for many months.

Again, by marked contrast with previous rounds of political negotiations, money will this time be a critical issue as the anticipated stalemate drags on.

The collapse of the Stormont administration was so sudden that a budget for the incoming fiscal year had not been agreed. That task, unless the British Government enacts emergency laws to restore direct rule, will now fall to a senior civil servant.

As the fear of a serious financial deficit intensifies, every day brings ever-more shrill demands from cadres of lobbyists and campaigning groups for their particular cause to be ever more lavishly funded by the taxpayer to shore up the crumbling health service, to boost education, create jobs, improve transport links and protect the environment.

But there is an even more critical and unprecedented money crisis hanging over Northern Ireland, one which even the most fervent throbbing of the tribal tom-toms cannot drown.

Within days of the March election, Theresa May will trigger Article 50, setting off what will be protracted negotiations to extricate the United Kingdom from the EU.

The precise implications of Brexit for Northern Ireland remain to be seen, but it's already evident that money, in the form of subsidies, grants, customs tariffs and restrictions on free trade and the mobility of workers, will be a baseline factor as the process proceeds.

Thus, the political debate ahead will, uniquely, be far more about avoiding potential destitution than considering the constitution.

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