Belfast Telegraph

RHI scandal: Shakespearean tragedy ends with an election nobody wants

By Tom Kelly

There's a familiarity to politics in Northern Ireland and it's called 'crisis'.

Listening to outgoing Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness defiantly (and with some vulnerability) announcing his resignation from office, I recalled the resignation of another Deputy First Minister, Seamus Mallon, in July 1999.

In his opening remarks Mallon reminded the Assembly of the pledges he affirmed when taking office "to work in good faith to bring into being the arrangements set out in the Good Friday Agreement and his commitment to observe the spirit of his pledge of office". Mallon felt that both Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionist Party were ripping the heart out of the Good Friday Agreement over decommissioning. He felt that efforts to resolve the impasse were not only being spurned, but scorned by some in unionism.

Yesterday, McGuinness, like Mallon, ran out of patience, this time because of the scornful attitude of his DUP Executive partners towards nationalism, Irish identity and the wider issues of equality within Northern society. It is very clear from his resignation letter that the RHI scheme - better known as 'cash for ash' - was only a tipping point, as Sinn Fein has clearly been festering for quite a while.

Bizarrely, McGuinness admits in his resignation letter that the equality agenda and the commitments under the Good Friday Agreement were for the past 10 years being eroded by the DUP, conveniently forgetting that whatever about his personal relationships with Arlene Foster's predecessors, that this erosion happened on his watch as Deputy First Minister.

The reality is that the RHI scheme and its subsequent handling by the First Minister and her advisers was recoverable until a series of kamikaze media interviews and a display of bullish bravado to an empty Assembly forced the hand of Sinn Fein into a point of no return.

Added to that was the belligerence of the DUP leader when she accused Sinn Fein of "playing a game of chicken".

Playground stuff, yes, but we know that very few children ever recoil from playing chicken - no matter what the danger to others or themselves.

The hapless Minister for Justice, Claire Sudgen, was about as purposeful during this crisis as an ashtray on a motorbike. Totally and utterly out of her depth, she floundered when she should have found her voice.

It is very clear that the absence of the minority parties from the Executive has caused considerable discomfort within the DUP, and particularly within Sinn Fein, which likes to campaign and be in government at the same time.

With the UUP and SDLP now firmly on the Opposition benches, when 'the proverbial' hits the ministerial fan, there is no hiding place for Executive ministers. Nor is there a convenient whipping boy in the shape of Mark H Durkan or Danny Kennedy.

The near hysterical reaction of the DUP to the UUP or SDLP's criticisms of the RHI debacle is both hypocritical and hilarious - what did it think those parties would do when it was a high-ranking DUP member who first lobbed this grenade into the public domain?

The past few weeks has been played out like some Shakespearean tragedy, and it has resulted in an election that no one really wants.

So, what next? Well, the aptly named James Brokenshire, our undercover Secretary of State, now oversees a truly broken statelet.

The cosy detente between his Conservative Government (so ably cultivated by his predecessor Theresa Villiers during the EU referendum) and the DUP is one of the reasons for Sinn Fein's estrangement from the current political process.

He now must manage Brexit against the wishes of the majority here in Northern Ireland - alongside a deeply divided and damaged institution at Stormont.

The Opposition will not be looking forward to an election because their resources are heavily depleted, and the workings of an effective partnership between the UUP and SDLP leaderships have not been properly rooted.

Last year the DUP mortgaged its souls on Project Arlene and it paid off handsomely.

But in this next Assembly election there will be fewer seats for everyone - and that includes the DUP.

The DUP will interpret the election as a rallying call to limit Sinn Fein's aspirations.

And Sinn Fein will see this as a chance to put manners on the DUP.

Voter apathy could defeat both ambitions.

As Mallon pointed out in 1999 - scorn is not a tradeable commodity in the politics of compromise. So, two weeks into 2017, and its deja vu for those pesky slow learners once more.

Tom Kelly is a political commentator

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