Northern Ireland Political Crisis: Explained

Today, Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire called an election for the Northern Irish Assembly to be held on March 2nd, just ten months after the last vote took place. This follows a scandal involving the First Minister’s involvement in a controversial renewable heating scheme that has cost taxpayers £500m.

Here’s an explanation of how we got here…


Unlike the Parliament in Westminister, Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly at Stormont has a power-sharing government, requiring unionists and nationalists to work together. This arrangement derives from the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which attempted to end some of the political turmoil in the region over the decades. Under the system, a First Minister and Deputy First Minister are appointed from the largest unionist and nationalist party and together they lead the executive. They both have equal authority and one cannot work without the other.

As a devolved authority, Stormont has control over agriculture, healthcare, transport, education, policing, justice, among other issues. Elections to the 108-seat Assembly use the single-transferable vote.

Until last week, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster was First Minister and Sinn Fein politician Martin McGuinness was Deputy First Minister.

The current political makeup of the Assembly is:

  • Democratic Unionist Party (37 – unionist)
  • Sinn Fein (28 – nationalist)
  • Ulster Unionist Party (16 – unionist)
  • Social Democratic and Labour Party (12 – nationalist)
  • Alliance (8)
  • Green (2)
  • People Before Profit Alliance (2)
  • Independent (2 – both unionist)
  • Traditional Unionist Voice (1 – unionist)


In November 2012, the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme (RHI) was set up as part of Northern Ireland’s plans to make 4% of heat come from renewables by 2015, reaching 10% by the end of the decade. The scheme offered financial incentives for businesses and other non-domestic users to install renewable heat systems, including biomass boilers and solar thermal and heat pumps.

The scheme was assigned £25 million for 2012-15, and in 2014-15, the department in fact underspent by £15 million due a lack of interest. However, applications increased significantly in April 2015 and almost 1,000 applications were received in three months, after plans were announced to cut the subsidy.

In February last year, the scheme closed amid a ‘significant financial risk to Northern Ireland block grant for the next 20 years’ and an investigation into the scheme got underway. It was revealed that the scheme had been exploited as there was no upper limit for the amount of energy that would be paid for, with claims that one farmer was aiming to claim £1 million over two decades for heating an empty shed. The scheme is projected to run £490 million overbudget.

The current DUP leader and Northern Irish First Minister Arlene Foster was the minister in charge of the scheme when it was set up, with a whistleblower allegedly warning Foster about the potential for fraud under the scheme. However, she refused calls by Sinn Fein, the UUP and SDLP to resign while investigations are underway.


Last Monday, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigned in protest over the RHI and other issues. In his resignation letter, McGuinness also cited the Brexit vote, the DUP’s veto over legalising same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland and the withdrawal of funding of an Irish language scheme as other reasons behind his decision to quit.

Sinn Fein had one week to replace McGuinness, but refused. Michelle O’Neill, Northern Ireland’s Health Minister and Sinn Fein MLA, said last week the DUP have disrespected the Northern Irish people with corruption in government, as well as through their attitudes towards equality for women and the LGBT community. In Stormont today, she said:


After negotiations to appoint a new Deputy First Minister failed, the Northern Ireland Secretary was bound by law to call an election, which he announced will be held in six weeks time on Thursday, March 2nd.

The Assembly will sit for the last time before the election next Wednesday, before being dissolved the following day. After that, campaigning will begin.




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