Martin McGuinness stepped down yesterday as Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister. His resignation letter rapped the Democratic Unionist Party for backing austerity and blocking women’s and LGBT rights, and attacked the first minister, Arlene Foster, for refusing to stand down temporarily while an independent inquiry is conducted into a botched renewable energy scheme. The scandal, known as ‘cash for ash’, began in 2013 when a whistleblower pointed out what was happening as a result of Renewable Heat Incentive subsidies not being capped. Farms and businesses that signed up to the scheme before it was shut down last year get £1.60 from the government for every pound spent on non-fossil fuels, without limit. The more wood they burn, the more money they make. One farmer is set to net a million quid over twenty years by heating an empty shed.
Foster was environment minister when the scheme was thrashed out. It’s estimated that ‘cash for ash’ will cost more than £1 billion. The Treasury in Westminster will cover £660 million of that; Stormont will have to pay for the rest. Calls for the first minister to stand aside have grown, though she survived a confidence vote the week before Christmas. Last Wednesday, Foster’s self-defence took an unexpected turn that did little to help her case. She argued that the calls for her resignation were ‘misogynistic’ and that she had done nothing wrong. She also brought up the IRA bus-bombing she survived as a child: horrific, but irrelevant to the calls for her resignation, especially as Sinn Féin were relatively late to lean on her to go – other party leaders had been calling for her departure long before.
The argument that the scandal is motivated by sexism didn’t wash. The Belfast Feminist Network put out a scathing statement: ‘Misogyny is rife in Stormont but, more often than not, it comes from the ranks of Foster’s own party the DUP.’ When she became first minister, Foster’s colleague Edwin Poots said it was the ‘second most important job that she will ever take on. Her most important job has been, and will remain, that of a wife, mother and daughter.’ Last year, the DUP MLA Jim Wells was caught on mic in a Public Accounts Committee session joking: ‘I am brilliant with women under the age of eight and great with those over the age of eighty – it’s the ones in between I can’t cope with.’
Sexism is a real and present problem for women in the public eye, but Foster has substantial accusations levelled against her, and attempting to smear political rivals as misogynist when the questions are coming from politicians on all sides does little to convince the public she has nothing to hide. The first minister seems to have been under the impression that by accusing her political opponents of sexism, she’d not only stifle their criticism but also get sympathy and support from women: the opposite has happened. If your daily life is made worse by sexism, seeing a powerful woman use it for political opportunism isn’t heartening, it’s infuriating.
Given the complexities of the power-sharing arrangements in Northern Ireland, another election must now be called. McGuinness’s resignation was tactical, and came after discussions with other Sinn Féin leaders. With the damage Foster has done to the DUP’s image, there is a slim chance that Sinn Féin will win enough votes to install a first minister.
There are implications for the United Kingdom, too: 56 per cent of Northern Irish voters were in favour of remaining in the EU. The possibility of a hard border returning between the north and south creates understandable worries about peace. Economists and politicians are warning of a sharp downturn in wealth and living standards after Brexit. In Northern Ireland they are already lower than in most of the rest of the UK. The only countries in Europe with higher infant mortality rates are Romania and Malta. When my father died in East Belfast a few years ago, one of his friends said to me, without irony: ‘He did have a long life though.’ He was in his mid-fifties.
A snap election is unlikely to settle matters. Implementing Brexit while Northern Irish politics is in disarray and each side accuses the other of trampling on the Good Friday Agreement will be impossible, especially since Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK with a land border with another country. Theresa May’s promise of a straightforward Brexit, after Ivan Rogers’s departure as ambassador to the EU and now the collapse at Stormont, looks ever more unrealistic.