Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland devolution fading fast as parties gear up for Assembly election

Power-sharing looks set to be shelved for some time

By Suzanne Breen

Stormont has been plunged into crisis with Northern Ireland poised on the brink of the most toxic election since the beginning of the peace process.

And the prospect of devolution disappearing for the foreseeable future is looming.

DUP sources last night claimed that Sinn Fein would attempt to renegotiate the St Andrew's Agreement and substantially change Stormont structures which the party believes aren't working for them.

The resignation of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness yesterday collapsed the Executive and the British Government has signalled that it will call a snap Assembly election.

Despite insisting that they aren't scared of having their support tested at the polls, none of Northern Ireland's political parties will welcome an expensive, unexpected election which will see at least 18 MLAs deposed with the change from six to five-seater constituencies.

Alliance leader Naomi Long said: "Of course there are fears that this could be a very toxic election.

"Arlene Foster's sabre-rattling statement yesterday about the need to defend unionism shows that she wants to turn this into an orange versus green battle.

"But I think that anger at the 'cash for ash' scandal is so strong that the public's eye won't be washed on this one, and the election will be a battle, not between unionism and nationalism, but between who is competent to govern and who isn't."

A DUP source predicted that the election would centre on issues other than controversy over the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme.

He said: "In his interviews, Martin McGuinness warned that there would be no return to ministerial office until Stormont's structures are altered.

"Sinn Fein believes the existing structures don't deliver for them and they want to change that and renegotiate the St Andrew's Agreement.

"Our party doesn't exist to deliver a republican agenda, it is there to deliver good governance for Northern Ireland. Given the likely stalemate after an election, it is impossible to see a return to devolution for a considerable time."

Announcing his resignation yesterday, a frail looking Mr McGuinness said that his party could no longer "tolerate the arrogance of Arlene Foster and the DUP".

He said that he had tried tirelessly for 10 years to make the political structures work but that the DUP had "undermined the institutions and eroded public confidence".

He claimed that an election to allow people "to make their own judgment on these issues democratically at the ballot box" was necessary, and he warned that, afterwards, there could be "no return to the status quo".

Mr McGuinness claimed that the DUP's handling of the RHI affair has been "completely out of step with the public mood".

In her response, Mrs Foster hit out at Mr McGuinness's decision and claimed that Sinn Fein's actions "are not principled, they are political".

She said: "Let me make it clear the DUP will always defend unionism and stand up for what is best for Northern Ireland and it appears from the Deputy First Minister's resignation letter that is what annoys Sinn Fein the most."

In a video posted on Facebook last night, Mrs Foster stated: "Rather than seek to resolve this (RHI) issue, Sinn Fein would rather take the people of Northern Ireland through the uncertainty of an election less than 12 months after the last one.

"Northern Ireland does not need an election, but solutions. Northern Ireland needs stability, but because of Sinn Fein's selfish actions, we now have instability."

Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire responded swiftly to the Executive's collapse. He said that unless Sinn Fein nominated a replacement to Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister within the next seven days - which the party has said it won't do - he would be calling an Assembly election "within a reasonable period".

A spokeswoman for Theresa May said: "The Prime Minister has been kept updated on the resignation of Martin McGuinness. The Northern Ireland Secretary, James Brokenshire, is in contact with people there, encouraging all parties to continue the dialogue."

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt claimed that an election wasn't the way to resolve the RHI crisis and that Mr McGuinness had let the DUP "off the hook".

"Sinn Fein should have stayed, to hold the First Minister to account, to force a public inquiry and to vote on the much-needed cost controls on the scheme," he said.

"Instead they have prioritised self-interest, as always. The public mood clearly indicates they want the facts of the RHI debacle exposed. To move straight to an election without this taking place is farcical."

Mr Nesbitt said that the Executive had "promised a Fresh Start but delivered a Fresh Crisis of momentous scale" and he called for the electorate to turn out to vote on what "should be a referendum on 10 years of DUP and Sinn Fein rule".

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood alleged that Mrs Foster's arrogance was the sole reason that an election - which he said his party was ready to fight - was taking place.

Mr Eastwood said that the collapse of devolution meant there would be no emergency legislation to cap RHI costs and no investigation into "potential corruption".

"Each and every day this scandal is costing taxpayers £85,000. If the Executive is incapable of opening itself up to accountability, I would urge the electorate to enforce their accountability at the ballot box," he said.

The state-funded RHI was supposed to offer a proportion of the cost businesses had to pay to run eco-friendly boilers, but the subsidy tariffs were set too high and, without a cap, it ended up paying out significantly more than the price of fuel.

This enabled applicants to "burn to earn" - getting free heat and making a profit as they did so.

While the DUP and Sinn Fein were in agreement on the terms of a potential investigation into RHI, the sticking point was the position of Mrs Foster when the probe got under way. Steps by the Executive to cut the costs of the overspend will now not be implemented in the short term.

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