Trouble in Northern Ireland muddies the Brexit waters | The World Weekly
How politically destructive could a single ill-conceived green energy scheme be? Contention over a five-year-old subsidy programme led to the collapse of Northern Ireland’s ruling coalition this week, and threatened to destroy a fragile power-sharing agreement drawn up between the region’s two main parties almost two decades ago in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The potential for delay adds yet another variable to the intricate Brexit equation.
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness stepped down on Monday evening after 10 years in office, in a successful bid to force First Minister Arlene Foster’s own resignation over her handling of the Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme. The initiative failed to impose caps on its provision of renewable energy subsidies to businesses, with one farmer receiving £1 million ($1.22 million) for using a boiler to heat an empty shed, according to a report by the Audit Office in February 2016.
The power-sharing protocol between Mr. McGuinness’ republican Sinn Fein party and Ms. Foster’s ruling Democratic Unionists now appears irreparably weakened, having already suffered damage from long-standing rifts over the region’s cultural and economic ties to mainland Britain and the EU. A snap election is highly likely.
What is more, aftershocks from the crisis could be felt further afield if Theresa May’s government is made to consult Britain’s devolved regional assemblies about its Brexit plans, as is currently being debated in the Supreme Court. If this were to happen, the timing of the election in Ireland would become crucial. Ms. May could well miss her self-imposed deadline of March for triggering Article 50 while waiting for the Irish Assembly to reconvene, opening herself up to further criticism of indecisiveness and prevarication.
The prime minister’s current plans for a unified Brexit settlement will change even more substantially if pro-Remain Sinn Fein were to gain ground. “Theresa May could end up creating a situation whereby England and Wales leave the European Union but Scotland and Northern Ireland remain,” said barrister Jolyon Maugham, who is seeking to have the Supreme Court case referred to the European Court of Justice in a bid to ensure more consultation for Britain’s devolved assemblies. He told The World Weekly that Brussels could well favour such a solution.
In the meantime, some observers predict the temporary return of direct rule from Westminster, as happened during similar crises in the early 2000s. This risks heightening the sense of powerlessness felt by the 56% of Northern Irish voters who voted in favour of remaining in the EU.