Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Northern Ireland: Absence of Government.

From Harry Hutchinson

Northern Ireland  Absence of Government.

The Northern Ireland (NI) government has collapsed for 14months now, with no prospect in sight of them being reestablished. Polarisation of the people now is preventing any establishment of the political institutions returning.

Fourteen months ago Sinn Fein, the main nationalist party in NI collapsed the government in Stormont, after the exposure of a corporate and government fraud scheme, Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme (RHI), which cost the public exchequer £400m.

Known as the 'cash for ash scheme,' wood burning businesses were paid to burn as much fuel as possible at the expense of public funds. Arleen Foster, then head of the DFI department which introduced the scheme, refused to step down as First Minister at the request of Sinn Fein when the scheme came to public attention, resulting in Sinn Fein pulling out of the government. It emerged later that both the main NI parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein were promoting the flawed scheme.

The background to Sinn Fein pulling out of Stormont lies not in the RHI scheme, but in discontent in their movement. Sinn Fein not only promotes itself as a nationalist 32 county all Ireland party, but also a socialist party, particularly the Sinn Fein party in the South. Since going into coalition with the DUP in the north, almost 2 decades of public sector cuts, particularly hospital closures, have caused discontent among rank and file Republican supporters.

Sinn Feins' aim over the last year is to push the agenda away from social issues to a national sectarian agenda. First a border poll for a all island Ireland, mixed with LGTB rights; then moving to Irish language rights written into law.

The latest negotiations between the 2 main parties had reached agreement on the main outstanding issue of the Irish language, with the resurrection of the Stormont looking imminent; however grass roots Unionist voters had the final say on the matter, rejecting any prospect of potential joint English and Irish names on road and housing estate signs. Both parties have reached stalemate, yet the British government refuses to reintroduce direct rule.

NI is more polarised than at any time in its history. Decades of paramilitary violence, further exasperated by sectarian issues, like parades and flags by Unionist and Nationalist parties have divided the two communities further.

Poverty plays a huge part in this division. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, in 2016, 370 thousand people, 1 in 5 of the population lived below the breadline, mainly among single parents with children. Such poverty leads to lower life expectancy and in addition, the same report has shown that 1in 5, ten to fifteen year olds have moderate to severe mental health problems, some which stem from legacies and the violence of the troubles.

Many people in NI, while they face an uncertain future, have endured the sectarian squabbling of the parties that have dominated Northern Ireland politics for decades. These parties rely on the division of the People on the National/border issue; the rumbling of the social issues are held in check.

Harry Hutchinson.

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