Political news

RHI: What happens if Sinn Féin pulls out of the executive?

Sinn Féin says 'there will not be an executive' if Arlene Foster doesn't step aside over the renewable heat scandal. Brendan Hughes examines how the party could deliver on this threat, and what happens if Stormont falls

A Stormont employee watching a TV feed of Arlene Foster addressing the assembly last year about RHI
Brendan Hughes

HE may have hoped to "clear the air" but Máirtín Ó Muilleoir ended up considerably raising the heat in Sinn Féin's rhetoric over the renewable heat scandal.

The finance minister denounced the DUP's plans to curb losses from the botched scheme as a "sticking plaster" following talks on Thursday with economy minister Simon Hamilton.

"Be clear on this – if Arlene Foster does not step aside there will not be an executive. There will not be institutions," he added.

But with the first minister remaining resolute in her refusal, and Sinn Féin insisting she must leave her post during a preliminary investigation, in what ways could the party carry through with this ultimatum?

'No executive' might not mean what it suggests. For example, the party could borrow the tactic Peter Robinson deployed in 2015 in response to the political fall-out over ex-IRA man Kevin McGuigan's murder.

DUP ministers resigned but signed back into office for only a few hours each week to avoid their portfolios going to rival parties.

The then DUP leader stood aside as first minister, with Mrs Foster temporarily standing in while a report on paramilitary activity was carried out.

The DUP's ministers then simply resumed their seats following the report's publication several weeks later.

However, the so-called 'in-out' policy was heavily criticised by rival parties and it would be unlikely Sinn Féin would replicate this.

Other manoeuvres could disrupt the executive without collapsing the institutions, such as Sinn Féin ministers refusing to attend executive meetings while an investigation is carried out.

Such a move would hamper the work and decision-making of the government, but the finance minister may face pressure to get back round the table with the DUP and deliver a budget.

If Sinn Féin do completely walk out of the executive, it's understood it would be up to Northern Ireland's Secretary of State James Brokenshire to call an election.

This would take place some weeks after being announced to give time for the nomination of candidates.

Northern Ireland's next election will also see a reduction in the number of seats in each constituency from six to five.

But regardless of how the parties fare at the polls, there still may not be a meeting of minds on the other side of any election.

This consideration could prevent Mr Brokenshire from pushing the nuclear button on Stormont straight away.

Working with the Republic's government, he may first try to convene talks between the parties in a bid to find a workable way forward and prevent Stormont's collapse.

Sinn Féin is not expected to act before the assembly reconvenes on January 16, when a fresh motion on the 'cash for ash' scandal is due to be voted upon.

The party is likely to again call for Mrs Foster to step aside during an investigation.

The exact details of the assembly session will be outlined at the business committee on Tuesday before being officially made public on Thursday.

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