Northern Ireland witnessed the seemingly unthinkable in 2007. The Protestant fundamentalist and hardline DUP leader, Ian Paisley sat down alongside alleged former IRA chief Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Féin, to announce that their parties had agreed to share power. Though this unlikely alliance has now survived for 10 years, it remains inherently unstable. Sinn Féin and the DUP are, to invert a famous phrase from George W Bush, a “coalition of the unwilling”. Now, less than a year since the last election, Northern Ireland is again voting for a new assembly. The likely result? Sinn Féin and the DUP will once more be elected the leading parties in their respective communities. And given that the reason for the premature vote was that Sinn Féin and the DUP could not agree on a way forward in the last assembly, stalemate and instability loom again. The trigger for the most recent breakdown was the so-called “cash-for-ash” scandal, relating to a renewable heat incentive scheme established under Arlene Foster, the then minister for enterprise, now DUP leader and – until recently – Northern Ireland’s first minister. The scheme was woefully planned, leading to a likely overspend of £490m for taxpayers to cover.
But even in the wake of the scandal, Foster refused to do as any leader operating in a more normal political system would and step aside. The reason she would not? Because Sinn Féin demanded she do so. And thus the reason why the Sinn Féin leader, Martin McGuinness, instead resigned? Because he therefore felt he could no longer stay in government with the DUP. Neither side could be seen to back down to the other, such is the sectarian imperative which still drives politics in Northern Ireland. Conceding ground to the “other side” will cost you support among your “own”.
McGuinness’s resignation precipitated the new election – the political system in Northern Ireland requiring the support of a majority on both sides of the divide in order to function. But with the poll likely to see Sinn Féin and the DUP retaining their positions as the leading parties in their respective communities, they will remain as scorpions in a bottle.
Full Article: Scorpions in a bottle: the fight between Northern Ireland’s two main parties defines another election.