The top Catholic official in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government abruptly resigned on Monday, plunging the territory into political uncertainty and adding to Britain’s complications as it plans to leave the EU.
Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness stepped down as a protest to what he called the mishandling of a program that subsidizes the use of “renewable” energy to heat buildings.
McGuinness said he would not nominate a replacement, a decision that effectively sets off an election for the Northern Ireland Assembly, as it will end the current power-sharing agreement between McGuinness’s Catholic Sinn Fein party and the Democratic Unionist Party, which represents Protestants and is led by First Minister of Northern Ireland Arlene Foster.
Under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to the decades-long sectarian strife known as the Troubles, Catholics and Protestants share governance of the region, along with the British government.
If a new deputy first minister is not nominated within seven days, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, who is appointed by London, must call an election, to take place in six weeks. The next election had not been scheduled until 2021. In a statement, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire, urged Northern Ireland’s political leaders to take the “necessary steps” to work together.
In a letter to the speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, McGuinness criticized the Democratic Unionist Party’s handling of the subsidy program, known as the renewable heat incentive (RHI), accusing the party of being “completely out of step with a public mood, which is rightly outraged.”
“The refusal of Arlene Foster to recognize the public anger or to exhibit any humility in the context of the RHI scandal is indicative of a deep-seated arrogance which is causing enormous damage,” he added. “We now need an election to allow the people to make their own judgment on these issues democratically at the ballot box.”
Sinn Fein had been heavily critical of Foster, who set up the renewable heating incentive program in 2012, when she was Irish minister for enterprise, trade and investment. (She became first minister early last year.)
The program was intended to encourage businesses and other non-household users to switch to renewable energy from fossils fuels, but the program has been dogged by problems. For one thing, claimants could receive more money if they had burned more fuel, which led some to install heaters where none had been in use previously. There were also allegations of corruption linked to Foster and her advisers, and an investigation was started early last year.
So far, the program is ￡490 million (US$595 million) over budget and the shortfall will be have to paid out of the block grant allocated to Northern Ireland each year from the British Treasury.
Sinn Fein had called on Foster to step aside while the investigation into the subsidy program ran its course, but she refused. She told a newspaper, the Impartial Reporter, that she would not engage in a “game of chicken” with Sinn Fein.
“His actions have meant that, at precisely the time we need our government to be active, we will have no government and no way to resolve the RHI problems,” she said. “It is clear that Sinn Fein’s actions are not principled, they are political.”