Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: RHI report, elections, Brexit... buckle up, 2019 could get rough

By Suzanne Breen

Stalemate at Stormont won't be disappearing anytime soon, but 2019 will still be an intriguing political year in Northern Ireland on numerous fronts.

The Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry is due to report, perhaps as early as spring, council elections will take place on May 2, and the chaos surrounding Brexit in the House of Commons means a snap Westminster election can't be completely ruled out.

It's almost two years since cash-for-ash brought down the power-sharing institutions and while the heat from the scandal has subsided, the fire has by no means completely burned out.

Sir Patrick Coghlin and his team sat through 111 days of oral evidence and have amassed over 1.2m pages of evidence.

Even those most cynical about such inquiries couldn't fail to be impressed - this was the polar opposite of a going-through-the-motions exercise.

The three-member panel chaired by the retired judge has been impressive in its forensic questioning and transparency.

Sir Patrick warned last month that some witnesses "may be subject to quite significant criticism" in his report.

The key question now is when it will be published. There will likely be political pressure for this to come after May's council elections, but Sir Patrick has proved to be very much his own man throughout proceedings.

Jonathan Bell drunkenly singing Breakfast At Tiffany's while being helped back to his Manhattan hotel was the headline grabbing moment of the inquiry, but it's his former boss Arlene Foster who has most to fear from the findings.

In the final week that the inquiry sat Sir Patrick remarked that he remained unclear as to what the DUP leader meant when she said she was "accountable but not responsible" for aspects of RHI. That doesn't bode well for Mrs Foster. A damning report would provide an opportunity for any rival within the party to challenge her leadership.

There were persistent rumours within the DUP in early autumn of a potential move to oust her, but it never materialised.

While a number of elected representatives remain unconvinced of her leadership qualities, she appears to have steadied the ship somewhat at the annual party conference in November.

As long as she retains the support of deputy leader Nigel Dodds - whose performance at Westminster on Brexit has been regarded as first-class by the DUP grassroots - she should survive.

By saying sorry at the DUP conference, Mrs Foster hoped to mitigate some of the RHI Inquiry report fall-out. There will certainly be no shock value in the report. All the material on the dysfunctionality and worse in the DUP operation at Stormont is already in the public domain.

The party can be expected to accept the report unequivocally. There will be no quarrelling or quibbling with its findings. It will say that lessons have been learned, and that any new Stormont regime will operate differently.

The public is likely to remain unconvinced, yet a severely weakened Ulster Unionist Party means the DUP faces no credible competition for the unionist vote.

Even if it's firing on all cylinders, the UUP will struggle to hold its 2014 council election position.

Then, the party secured 16% support to the DUP's 23%.

By last year's Westminster election, Mrs Foster's party won more than three times the votes of its rival - 36% to 10%. In 2014, the Sinn Fein-SDLP split of the vote was 24%-14%. Mary Lou McDonald's party can be expected to widen that lead significantly. It will be the party's first election on this side of the border under its new leader.

Sinn Fein polled poorly in the Republic's presidential election in October with Liadh Ni Riada securing just 6% of the vote - less than half that won by the late Martin McGuinness in 2011.

While the hand-over from Gerry Adams was flawless - and Ms McDonald has performed strongly in the Dail and the media - Southern opinion polls show a slump in support for both her personally and her party.

The danger for Sinn Fein is that in its eagerness to court middle Ireland, it is alienating traditional supporters by the anaemically uninspiring message that can follow from trying to be all things to all people.

In our council elections Sinn Fein will face a challenge from its former TD Peadar Toibin, who is launching his new party later this month. He resigned six weeks ago over its abortion policy.

His party will hold little allure for republican voters in urban areas. It could have some pulling power in rural constituencies, although Sinn Fein will hardly be quaking in its boots.

The SDLP may not even exist at the end of 2019. The story that the party would disband if Fianna Fail organised in Northern Ireland was broken by the Belfast Telegraph in April. Yesterday's Irish Times reported that an announcement of the phased integration of the two parties was imminent.

SDLP Youth and a significant section of the party in Belfast, including high-profile MLA Claire Hanna, strongly oppose any merger. But it is still likely to win the support of a majority of members who see no future for the party if it doesn't link up with an ally that can bring a well-oiled political machine, and most importantly finances, to the table.

Karen Bradley was appointed Northern Ireland Secretary almost a year ago, but she may not have that long left in the job. Pressure from the DUP could see her moved in the next Cabinet reshuffle.

DUP MP Ian Paisley could well be fighting for his political life (again) this year after BBC Spotlight reported that he failed to declare another luxury holiday to parliamentary authorities. He denied any wrongdoing.

But the biggest political story over the next 12 months will continue to be Brexit, despite the fact that an increasing number of people - regardless of how they voted in the referendum - are utterly bored with it.

We are set to leave the EU in just 87 days, yet everything remains up in the air. MPs are due to vote on Theresa May's deal in the third week in January. But a majority in Commons for it - indeed for anything - currently looks impossible. An extension of Article 50 postponing leaving the EU currently appears most likely.

Yet confident predictions on this one are foolish. The only certainty with this whole Brexit business is still uncertainty.

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