The next step after Northern elections
The result of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections will now see the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein immediately lead negotiations aimed at creating a new power-sharing government in Belfast. The prospect of the parties reaching agreement in the three-week timeframe imposed by the Northern Ireland secretary, James Brokenshire, seems remote in the aftermath of this election result. However, all is not lost. The impasse could be broken were the DUP leader, Arlene Foster, to temporarily step aside in order to force Sinn Fein to seriously engage in negotiations aimed at reviving the institutions. It was her refusal to do so in the first place that allowed Sinn Fein the opportunity to collapse the assembly, a decision from which it has now emerged as the main beneficiary in these elections.
Sinn Fein has come to within one seat of matching the DUP return of 28 seats, having entered the election 10 seats behind. On a significantly increased turnout, Sinn Fein has won back all and more of the vote share it lost in elections 10 months ago, to take its highest share of first-preference votes ever at nearly 28pc. Sinn Fein's success is largely as a result of a litany of serious political mistakes by the DUP, primarily by Foster. With this election result also attends responsibility, however. That responsibility necessitates the DUP and Sinn Fein to engage in talks to put in place proper and genuine power sharing in Northern Ireland. But Sinn Fein will refuse to do so unless Foster steps aside pending the outcome of an inquiry into the so-called 'ash for cash' scheme, a decision which would likely see a return to direct rule from Westminster. The 'ash for cash' or Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme was set up in November 2012, and run by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in Northern Ireland when current DUP First Minister Arlene Foster was minister. The administration of the scheme has since led to political controversy, primarily because the scheme was initiated when Arlene Foster was the minister responsible. She must now take the initiative. There is a precedent that would allow the Northern Ireland assembly be reformed and require Sinn Fein to resume the responsibilities of government. In January 2010 the then Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson temporarily handed over duties to Foster under the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 2006. He did so again in September 2015 to allow Ms Foster become acting First Minister. Arlene Foster should now give serious consideration to the benefit of temporarily stepping aside to allow the re-forming of the assembly and deny Sinn Fein the benefit of attempting to further politically thrive in its absence. Meanwhile, statements from political leaders here, notably from the Fianna Fail leader, Micheal Martin and the Fine Gael leadership contenders, Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, that neither of their parties will contemplate government with Sinn Fein are to be welcomed. The Northern Ireland assembly is a political construct designed to bring an end to years of armed conflict. As such, it has performed reasonably well. However, almost 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement, the political dispensation in Northern Ireland remains far removed from that of a normally functioning democracy. The outcome of the Assembly elections reflects the continuation, indeed the entrenchment of tribal politics in Northern Ireland.