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Jan 17, 2017 | 13:02 GMT

3 mins read

Northern Ireland: Elections Loom as Political Crisis Intensifies

Northern Ireland will hold snap elections March 2, following the collapse of power-sharing negotiations on Jan. 16 between the coalition government's two parties, the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein and the pro-U.K. Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The two parties have been at odds over a botched green energy scheme, introduced by DUP leader and Northern Irish First Minister Arlene Foster when she was enterprise minister in 2012. The scheme, which was intended to encourage Northern Irish businesses to rely more on renewable energy, instead incentivized companies to waste fuel — at a cost to taxpayers of nearly 500 million pounds (or at least $650 million).
 
On Jan. 10, after Foster repeatedly dismissed calls to resign, Northern Irish Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein's top representative in the coalition government, stepped down in protest. According to the joint protocols established at the time of the Good Friday Agreement, the landmark 1998 peace deal that helped end Northern Ireland's long-running conflict, the country must be ruled by a power-sharing government with representation from both unionists and Irish nationalists. McGuinness's resignation legally obliged Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire to call new elections.
 
The conflict over the green energy scheme deepened a crisis involving other policy disputes between the two parties, as well as the DUP's refusal to open new inquests into killings that took place during Northern Ireland's conflict, known as "The Troubles," or to continue funding an Irish language project. For its part, the DUP accused Sinn Fein of putting its political interests ahead of the need to cooperate across party lines. 
 
The last elections in Northern Ireland took place in May 2016. In the next vote, the DUP and Sinn Fein are once again expected to emerge as the largest parties, but it remains uncertain whether they will manage to solve enough of their disagreements to form another government. In 2002, when the two sides could not agree to form a power-sharing government, the British central government decided to suspend the process of devolving powers to Northern Ireland and to rule the country directly from London until 2007. After the March 2 election, Northern Ireland's political parties will have three weeks to form a government. The country's devolved powers could theoretically be suspended again if an agreement remains elusive, but this scenario is improbable. 
 
On Jan. 11, before the Northern Irish government collapsed, British Prime Minister Theresa May said that early elections in Northern Ireland would not disrupt London's timetable for leaving the European Union. But it could complicate matters. If a more pro-EU government is elected, Northern Ireland could follow Scotland's lead and demand a stronger voice in negotiations between the United Kingdom and the European Union. As in Scotland, a majority of Northern Irish voters opposed leaving the Continental bloc in last year's Brexit referendum.

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