This week, Theresa May is attending an EU summit in Salzburg, Austria. With Brexit looming, the question of the Irish border has been left unanswered. While Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar and May have sparred on this most contentious of issues, a question remains: where is the Northern Ireland First Minister?
Euronews answers why, at the most pivotal moment for Northern Ireland since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, they have no government in place.
What was the “Ash for Cash” scandal?
The “Ash for Cash” debacle took the headlines by storm in January 2017 and became the greatest political scandal to hit Stormont's walls for many years. Beginning in 2012, the botched Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme (RHI) was set up by the Department of Trade, Enterprise and Investment (DETI), for which Arlene Foster was in command as Minister. The purpose of the scheme was to provide an incentive for farmers and businesses to switch to a more eco-friendly alternative than burning fossil fuels.
The subsidy plan was a tacit 'copy and paste' from a similar programme in Britain. Unlike its counterpart, however, a cap was omitted on how much one could profit from such a scheme. For every £1 spent on wood pellets, the business could receive £1.60 in return. A report published by the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) in 2016 found that the programme was "copied ... without thought".
Despite denying that she had any knowledge of the impending disaster the scheme would become, the earliest whisperings of concern date back to 2011 when more than a dozen businesses as part of a consultation alerted the DETI of the issue with the subsidy. In a 2013 email, businesswoman Janette O'Hagan voiced concerns, saying that the subsidy “pays them to use as much as they can. In fact, the incentive to use more is leading to misuse in some cases”.
In April 2015, the Department announced that the scheme would be amended after its application to the Department of Finance to renew it was denied. Following reports that the scheme was to be offered more widely, a surge of applicants applied for the subsidy.
Between September and November 2015, where there was a brief three-month window prior to alterations made to the incentive, 984 applicants were accepted. Overall, 1,946 applicants were accepted for the subsidy with a 98% approval rate. Any approved applicants are entitled to the grants for up to 20 years.
By December 2015, it became apparent that the energy scheme was inherently flawed. A month later, the financial scandal would become headline news, when a whistleblower contacted the Department to inform them that one farm was aiming to make over £1 million in 20 years by burning the pellets in an empty shed for 24 hours a day. Over £1 billion will be paid toward the scheme, with £600 million to be funded by the treasury while the remainder will be burdened on the Northern Irish taxpayer.
How did it collapse the government?
Foster became the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party in January 2016. Following the end of the scheme, an investigation was launched several months later. It emerged that a business in Britain would make £192,000 from the scheme over a 20-year period, while the same business would garner a £860,000 profit from the Northern Irish counterpart.
The late Martin McGuinness and former Deputy First Minister and Sinn Féin politician sought for Foster to step aside before the judicial enquiry began. Foster remained adamant and refused. On January 9, 2017, McGuinness resigned, marking the beginning of the collapse of the 10-year power-sharing government and devolution of power to Westminster.
The Good Friday Agreement
The Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 and marked the end of "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland - a thirty year period of violence between unionists and nationalists. The unionists, mainly Protestants, aimed to remain within the UK while the nationalists, largely self-identified as Catholics, sought a united Ireland. The peace agreement was signed and saw the devolution of power from Westminster to the Northern Ireland Assembly housed in Stormont, Belfast, while the governmental model was chosen so that power would be shared among parties to lessen sectarian divisions.
The resignation of McGuinness rocked the power-sharing assembly. Once the Assembly is elected every four years, a First Minister and Deputy are appointed - one unionist and the other nationalist.
If a First Minister or Deputy resigns, the party has one week to appoint a successor, which Sinn Féin refused to do, sparking a general election. In March 2017, The DUP and Sinn Féin were elected. The pair had three weeks to settle disagreements before they returned to power. The three weeks passed, with both parties failing to agree on many issues, a chief disagreement being the failure to introduce the Irish Language Act, cementing the status of the language.
Since then, Northern Ireland has been without a government in its most pivotal moment since the Good Friday Agreement was signed, ending decades of violence. In August, it surpassed Belgium, breaking the world record for the longest time a country has been without a government. The inquiry into the scandal is currently on-going.
Implications of "Cash for Ash" on Brexit
In June 2017, May signed a deal with the DUP ensuring her place as UK Prime Minister, giving the Northern Irish party a resounding voice on a wide range of issues. The deal was seen by many as controversial, putting doubt into UK's neutral stance and adding a strain on power-sharing while seeing Foster gaining power on the other side of the water.
It is not a question of if power-sharing returns, but when. A return to power-sharing will see Sinn Féin returning to the fold, garnering the power of veto, and that will add a thick layer of complexity that is being swept under the carpet, for now.