SEEING we had reached the third anniversary of when the last Northern Ireland Assembly was brought down by the resignation of the late Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister, it was not before time that the new version of the institution was restored last weekend, especially as all the Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) elected on March 2nd, 2017 had been getting paid since for effectively doing nothing.
At the time it collapsed, it was because Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster refused to accede to Sinn Féin demands to step aside as First Minister for the duration of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) inquiry, dubbed the cash-for-ash scandal, which is still ongoing. Ms Foster, in her testimony, put most of the blame for the RHI mess on her former ministerial colleague Jonathan Bell.
Since the 2017 Assembly election, there were several attempts – under three successive Northern Ireland Secretaries of State – to get the executive functioning there again, but for much of that time, the DUP was more interested in Westminster politics and trying to ensure that the North left the European Union with the rest of the United Kingdom, even though the majority of the people of NI voted to remain in the EU in the Brexit referendum of June 2016.
After Theresa May foolishly called a general election in 2017, she was forced to do a deal with the DUP to keep her minority Conservative-led government in power and so emboldened were Foster and her colleagues with their king-making role that they seemed to lose interest in their home patch and reviving the Northern Ireland Assembly slipped down their list of priorities.
However, electoral slippages to more moderate parties, firstly in the local and European elections last May, and then the loss of holding the balance of power in Westminster after Boris Johnson’s landslide victory for the Conservative Party in last month’s British general election, have forced the DUP to seek to resurrect its relevance by re-engaging more seriously in the talks that have led to the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
During its three-year hiatus, which was the time the North could most badly have done with having a functioning Assembly, its citizens looked on helplessly as the spectre of Brexit loomed ever-closer and public services deteriorated due to the lack of a proper decision-making executive. Restoration and improvement of public services need to be the main priority of the new Northern Ireland Assembly, as set out in the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ agreement.
While they were away also, the DUP saw legislation they were opposed to, facilitating same-sex marriage and abortion across all parts of the UK, introduced directly by Westminster. This did not go down well amongst their largely-conservative followers and, to add to their annoyance, it was warmly welcomed by their Sinn Féin nemesis.
During this year’s transition phase following the UK’s departure from the EU after January 31st, the talks to determine our future trading relationship across the border between the Republic and the North – effectively between the EU and the UK – will be crucial. All the bluff and bluster about a ‘frictionless-border’ will be truly put to the test.