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The Northern Ireland elections explained, in five controversies
Voters go to the polls tomorrow. Here’s what you need to know.

Brexit PA Wire / PA Images Gerry Adams and Sinn Féin's leader in Northern Ireland Michelle O'Neill. PA Wire / PA Images / PA Images

NORTHERN IRELAND HEADS to the polls tomorrow for its second assembly elections in less than a year.

Politicians have been going door-to-door to drum up votes ahead of the ballot, amid not-insignificant public frustration with the current political system.

Many voters, asked for their opinions in radio and TV vox-pops in recent weeks, have questioned why the scandal that brought the latest power-sharing administration down couldn’t have been resolved without the need for an election.

If you haven’t been keeping track of what’s been happening, here’s a quick run-down of the lie of the land, and the controversies that have been hitting the headlines.

1. Cash for Ash

The controversy that brought the whole house of cards down in the first place…

Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigned in protest over the botched green heating scheme at the start of the year, following weeks of tensions with the DUP.

The Renewable Heat Incentive scheme was instigated by First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster when she was economy minister.

She repeatedly refused to step aside temporarily to allow an investigation into a scheme which could cost Northern Ireland taxpayers up to £490 million (€560 million euros).

McGuinness accusing Foster of “deep-seated arrogance” over the move. The two parties – who have held the co-equal First Minister and Deputy First Minister posts since power-sharing was restored in 2007 – have each accused the other of bringing down the administration.

He effectively put Foster out of office with his resignation, and set in train a sequence of events that meant an election was inevitable unless the DUP made a significant move on Cash for Ash.

Northern Ireland Assembly election 2017 campaign Niall Carson Niall Carson

The RHI aimed to encourage businesses (and later individuals) to switch to more environmentally-friendly heating methods. Subsidies paid to companies were not capped and the more heat a business generated, the higher the subsidy it received.

“I think we will take hits in middle-class areas where there is anger over the RHI scheme and our defence of it. But I still think we will get ahead of Sinn Féin and return as the largest party,” a DUP source told the Guardian this week.

Foster declined to take questions on the RHI (or anything else for that matter) at the launch of the DUP manifesto last month, citing ‘man flu’.

2. ‘Don’t feed the crocodile’

Foster came in for criticism for saying her party would never agree to an Irish language act in the North. Referring to Sinn Féin’s calls for more supports for the language, she told supporters, “If you feed a crocodile it will keep coming back for more”.

Support for the Irish language (or rather, the lack of it) had become a bone of contention between the DUP and Sinn Féin in the lead up to the political breakdown at the start of the year. It was one of the background factors that lead to McGuinness effectively pulling the plug.

Up until the latest Stormont Assembly with Foster and McGuinness at the helm, discussions and policies around Irish language policies had been stagnant at best – with talk around the implementation of an Irish language act rumbling on (commitment to preserve, develop and promote Irish is part of the Good Friday Agreement).

But recently DUP members had begun to implement more regressive policies with regard to the Irish language – such as the new Agriculture Minister renaming a boat from the Irish ‘Banraíon Uladh’ to ‘Queen of Ulster’ at a cost of £302.

Martin McGuinness steps down from elected politics PA Wire / PA Images Martin McGuinness, who has stepped down from politics due to ill-health, alongside Michelle O'Neill. PA Wire / PA Images / PA Images

In December, the Assembly’s Communities Minister Paul Givan withdrew funding for the Líofa Irish language bursary fund, which was worth about £50,000 per year (the funding cut was later reversed).

Political commentators have suggested that Sinn Féín is under pressure from its support base to stop compromising with the DUP on core issues – which led to poor nationalist turn-outs in the last election.

The issue of the Irish language has raised its head more than once on the campaign trail. Naomi Long, leader of the smaller Alliance party, was forced to defend her use of Irish on planned election posters, after online criticism.

3. ‘Vote 1 UUP, vote 2 SDLP’

The fortunes of the more-centrist UUP and SDLP have been fading in the North ever since the days of David Trimble and John Hume.

Concert Bono/Trimble/Hume PA Archive / PA Images The fortunes of the UUP and SDLP have taken a slide since the days of Trimble and Hume. PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

Last year, the two parties formed the first official opposition in the assembly and the two leaders, the UUP’s Mike Nesbitt and the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood, have said they’ll work together if necessary if their parties are returned as the two largest.

Nesbitt said he was telling voters to “vote Ulster Unionist and then vote for any candidate that you trust will deliver for your community, for your constituency and for this country”.

However, he went too far for some supporters when he said he would select the SDLP as his second preference on his ballot paper when he cast his vote. (It’s not party policy, it should be pointed out - he just said he planned to do it in his area).

“The ethos of our party is destroyed,” UUP councillor Carol Black said, as she quit the party in disgust, the Belfast Telegraph reported.

The DUP and SDLP are lagging well behind their rivals in their respective communities, based on last year’s election results. The number of seats in the assembly drops from 108 to 90 this year. The change was decided on last year as a cost-saving measure.

Here’s the breakdown of seats, based on last May’s vote:

  • DUP: 38
  • SF: 28
  • UUP: 16
  • SDLP: 12
  • Alliance: 8
  • Others: 6

4. Michelle O’Neill’s speech honouring IRA men

Michelle O’Neill, who was selected as Sinn Féin’s leader in the North in the wake of McGuinness’s resignation due to ill health, spoke at an event last month honouring four IRA men shot dead by the British Army in 1992. The IRA men had earlier mounted an attack at an RUC station.

Shot IRA men commemoration PA Wire / PA Images PA Wire / PA Images / PA Images

“It is dancing on the graves of the innocent victims of the IRA campaign by a Sinn Féin leader and glorifying those terrorists who met their just desserts at the hands of the SAS in 1992,” Jim Allister of the Traditional Unionist Voice said. Jeffrey Donaldson of the DUP later called on O’Neill’s party to consider its ”deeply sectarian attitude”.

The whole affair is typical of the sort of tit-for-tat political attacks now commonplace in peacetime Northern Ireland. Addressing a commemorative event for IRA volunteers is hardly out-of-the ordinary for a Sinn Féin leader, and only serves as a further signal to the party’s nationalist base.

Similarly, the response from the unionist side is to be expected. Arlene Foster has repeatedly mentioned Gerry Adams in speeches and interviews recently – appealing to her own base with reminders of their old foe.

5. ‘Like Isis’

DUP MP Sammy Wilson sparked criticism at the weekend when he said he agreed with a Belfast mural comparing Sinn Féin to Isis.

“There has always been an affiliation between Irish republicans and terrorist groups, especially in the Middle East,” Wilson claimed in an interview with a US broadcaster, before he was pushed on whether he agreed with the message of the mural.

“Yes I do,” he responded.

isis Youtube / PBS Youtube / PBS / PBS

Wilson’s comments, like those of his DUP’s colleague and the TUV’s Jim Allister, are another example of the unionists playing to their base.

Foster mentioned Adams – who, of course, doesn’t hold a seat in the North – 12 times at her manifesto launch, according to one report.

Recent polling, she said, “confirms that this election will be neck and neck between Gerry Adams’ Sinn Féin and the DUP. The other parties are trailing far behind.”

Sinn Féin would use election success to justify a border poll, Foster insisted (the decision to grant a border poll is in the gift of the Secretary of State. You can read more about the process here).

Polls open at 7am across the North’s 18 constituencies tomorrow, with each area returning five MLAs. The polls close at 10pm.

- With reporting from AFP and Gráinne Ní Aodha  

Read: New poll shows that support for Sinn Féin is at its highest level in a year >

Read: Hard border fears as government accused of seeking out locations for customs posts >

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