Magazine

Northern Ireland government collapse - what exactly is going on?

Northern Ireland government collapse - what exactly is going on?

Northern Ireland is heading for an election after the powersharing executive imploded over an eco-boiler scandal. Here are the answers to some key questions on how the next weeks and months are likely to play out in Stormont’s latest political drama.

What happens now?

(Niall Carson/PA)
James Brokenshire is expected to make a statement in the Commons (Niall Carson/PA)

 

While the ruling executive has gone up in smoke, the Assembly is set to limp on for a number of days pending the required rubber stamps for dissolving it.

Secretary of State James Brokenshire is expected to make a statement to the House of Commons and the Queen will need to approve an Order of Council.

Once those requirements are fulfilled the Assembly will be dissolved and the election campaign will be up and running.

Will the election be like other Assembly polls?

The make-up of the Northern Ireland Assembly

Sort of. The campaign will be of similar length to past elections.

 

What resources the parties will be able to throw at it – after three elections in last three years – is another matter.

One crucial difference is the electorate is returning 90 MLAs this time round, not 108. The reduction of the Assembly was due to be implemented at the next scheduled election – in 2021 – but recent events have fast-tracked that reform timetable.

What if the DUP and Sinn Féin are returned as the largest parties?

(Niall Carson/PA)
DUP leader Arlene Foster leads her party to the chamber before today’s session (Niall Carson/PA)

 

Barring a seismic redrawing of the electoral landscape, the pre-eminent parties of unionism and nationalism should retain their right to lead a powersharing government.

Whether they will take part in such an administration is another matter entirely.

A bitter election campaign will do little to resolve the myriad disputes between the DUP and Sinn Féin. Both parties have signalled the need to address their respective issues of concern before re-entering government.

How long have they got to sort it?

Martin McGuinness leaves the Great Hall after today's session (Niall Carson/PA)
Martin McGuinness leaves the Great Hall after today’s session (Niall Carson/PA)

 

After the election, the new Assembly needs to meet within one week. A new executive needs to be in place a further two weeks on from that.

If the leading parties decline to nominate first and deputy first ministers within that time-frame, legislation dictates that Brokenshire calls yet another election.

Another election. Are you serious?

(Peter Morrison/AP)
(Peter Morrison/AP)

 

While the law as it stands requires another poll, it is debatable whether the British government would opt for a step that would surely test the electorate’s patience to breaking point.

In those circumstances, it is likely devolution would be suspended and Northern Ireland would return to direct rule by Westminster for the first time in 10 years.

Would suspending the institutions be straightforward for the British government?

(Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Westminster may play a role in the future of Stormont (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

 

Not really. The Secretary of State used to have powers to suspend the institutions – a step that was not uncommon during the early years of the peace process.

Those powers were removed under the terms of the 2006 St Andrews Agreement. The British government would need to pass emergency legislation at Westminster to regain the authority to put Stormont back in cold storage.

If there was a suspension, what would happen then?

(Peter Morrison/AP)
A break may lead to reform (Peter Morrison/AP)

 

A return to direct rule would provide some breathing space for a more substantive talks process to address the issues of contention at the heart of Stormont.

How long it would take to strike yet another deal to save the powersharing institutions is anyone’s guess.