News

Snap election on the cards

Thursday, 12 January 2017

AS the fate of the Northern Ireland Assembly hangs in the balance and a snap election very likely, parties locally have already begun to mobilise their camps for what is expected to be a bitter and hard fought campaign which will see the return of only five MLAs from each of the West Tyrone and Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituencies instead of the normal six apiece.

Speculation is already mounting as to who might lose out with fears that perhaps the Sinn Féin party may be among the casualties.

In essence, an election will be called if Sinn Féin do not nominate an Assembly member to replace Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness within seven days.

Matters came to a head on Monday with the dramatic resignation of Sinn Fein's Mr McGuinness as Deputy First Minister which, for all intents and purposes, has thrown the power sharing-administration into chaos.

Historically one of Northern Ireland's most controversial political figures, Mr McGuinness, 66, who is said to be suffering ill-health in recent months, said his resignation was caused by the failure of First Minister Arlene Foster to stand aside to allow an investigation into so-called 'cash for ash' scandal.

The Fermanagh-South Tyrone MLA insisted she would not temporarily step aside, pending an investigation into the renewable heat incentive (RHI) scheme, which could cost up to £490m, as demanded by Sinn Féin. As expected all parties have engaged in the 'blame game' for this latest impasse.

Reacting to the latest development, sitting West Tyrone DUP MLA., Tom Buchanan, said it was "unfortunate and disappointing" that the Deputy First Minister chose to walk away from devolved government in Northern Ireland.

"It's not good for the people of Northern Ireland, it's not good for the people or the business community. The majority of people want to see Stormont working," said Mr Buchanan.

Accusing Sinn Féin of pulling out because they weren't getting their own way, he continued: "They are pulling out because they aren't getting their own way and using the RHI issue as a scapegoat. It's clear from what Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Conor Murphy have said that unless Sinn Féin gets what it wants and the people of Northern Ireland falls in behind what Sinn Féin want, they are going for an election.

"If it's based around RHI we as a party are fully behind Arlene Foster. I'm 110% behind our party leader. She has given leadership to the unionist people and will continue to do that and if it comes to an election we're up for it; we're ready for it and as a representative for West Tyrone, I'll be going forward for the DUP to again gain a seat.

'Election'

"We will not be shying away from an election and we will be returned as the largest party for unionism and the largest party in Northern Ireland within any new devolved institution that may arise following that. If Sinn Féin think the DUP is going to turn away then they have another thing coming. We're up for it and we're going forward."

He added this was not the situation they wanted to be in or should be.

"We need to be giving leadership to the people of Northern Ireland, that's what the First Minister has been doing, but unfortunately Sinn Féin has thrown baby and all out of the pram because they haven't got everything that they wanted. It's an unfortunate situation and not what the people of Northern Ireland want and I hope if an election is called, the people of Northern Ireland give Sinn Féin the answer," he said.

West Tyrone UUP MLA., Ross Hussey, said he was confident the UUP could retain its seat despite the cut in seats available. He was also critical of Sinn Féin for letting the DUP 'off the hook' in relation to the RHI scandal.

"There are those that believe the current situation is a game of 'chicken' between the DUP and SF. The resignation letter submitted by Deputy First Minister McGuinness doesn't take effect until Monday (January 16). Following that they have an option to renominate a Deputy First Minister or collapse the Assembly.

"The Ulster Unionist Party strongly believe that this is not the way to resolve the RHI scandal. Sinn Féin should have stayed, to hold the First Minister to account, to force a public inquiry and to vote on the much-needed cost controls on the scheme.

"If SF proceed as the DFM letter suggests they have prioritised self-interest, as always. This is Sinn Féin letting the DUP off the hook. The public mood clearly indicates they want the facts of the RHI debacle exposed. To move straight to an election without this taking place is farcical. They had a choice between the integrity of the institutions and electoral advantage and they appear to have chosen the latter.

"If there is no public inquiry we will never know the truth behind this scandal. In addition until the Assembly resolve this issue we are losing £85,000 a day in the 'cash for ash' scandal."

He added: "This will be a 90-seat assembly with the 18 constituencies having five seats apiece. West Tyrone will move from six members to five. I am confident the Ulster Unionist Party will retain the seat they have held in the last two Assembly elections," he said. 

Catalyst

Meanwhile, West Tyrone Sinn Féin MLA., Barry McElduff, said he had been contacted by people from both traditions in the local area over the past number of weeks expressing their dissatisfaction with Ms Foster's handling of the RHI, Red Sky, Nama and the gaeltacht grant situations.

He said he believed the DUP had "lost the run of themselves" and was the catalyst for Sinn Fein and Martin McGuinness' decision to resign.

"This was a massive decision but it chimed with the mood of the people locally," he claimed.

"The DUP has lost the run of themselves in mutual relation to respect, equality and, in the face of allegations of corruption, have behaved in a very arrogant manner and I think the failure of Arlene Foster to step aside was the key to this," said Mr McElduff.

He added that in any society where such controversy ranged and the minister responsible failed to step aside to allow a proper investigation, there would only ever be one outcome.

The only SDLP MLA in West Tyrone, Daniel McCrossan, pointed the finger of blame at both the DUP and Sinn Féin.

“The public should be under no illusions that this election is a direct result of the DUP's arrogance which has been fuelled by 10 years of weakness from Sinn Féin. An election will do nothing to recover the hundreds of millions lost on RHI and will in fact grant those responsible a two-month reprieve from accountability," said Mr McCrossan.

“As the DUP and Sinn Féin spend the next two months beating their tribal drums we will still have no Programme for Government, no budget, no plan for Brexit and no action on the crises we face in housing, health, education and welfare reform.

“The public will now have their say in an election and they need to ask themselves: Do we continue down the same path of failure, scandal and inaction or do we elect a new government that will actually start delivering on the 'bread and butter' issues that matter to people? The public deserve better and that is what I and the SDLP will offer in any election," he said.

There is expected to be a flurry of activity locally amongst other groups and parties now that an election looks likely.

First off the blocks was the environmental group, Save Our Sperrins (SOS). Its chairman, Cormac McAleer, has appealed to the local political parties to clarify their position on gold mining here and added the anti-gold mining comunity may unite and put forward their own candidate in any forthcoming election.

"The collapse of the Stormont Executive and forthcoming elections give greater weight to our request. Given the importance of the issue not just for Greencastle but for the wider district, SOS will be exploring all options for maximising the opportunity the election presents, including the option of fielding an agreed candidate," he said.

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