10/01/2020 14:15 GMT | Updated 10/01/2020 15:06 GMT

The Slightly Bonkers Reason Northern Ireland's Stormont Government Has Done Nothing In Three Years

Bust-ups, wood pellets and a slow-burning public service crisis.

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Stormont, the home of government in Belfast.

Three years ago, the Northern Ireland Assembly fell out in an argument over – believe it or not – wood pellets.

More specifically, a scheme involving burning wood pellets as fuel that some people were abusing, allowing them to make a profit simply by heating their homes.

When the scandal became public, one prominent minister refused to resign, leading another to resign in protest, leading to the collapse of Stormont and a weird political limbo that would paralyse the country until today.

After much negotiating – during which time civil servants have been largely left to fend for themselves while Westminster sets the country’s budget – things could be resolved on Friday if the main parties finally sign off on a draft agreement tabled by the UK and Irish governments.

Here’s how we got here...

The scandal

The drama in question was the delightfully-dubbed Cash for Ash scandal, or, to give it its actual name, the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal.

This was supposed to be an environmental scheme whereby people were paid a subsidy towards the cost of buying wood pellets to burn for fuel rather than dirtier materials such as coal.

But the scheme had one rather massive flaw – due to some shoddy oversight, it paid out more than it actually cost to buy the pellets, meaning it didn’t take much for those in the scheme to fill their stoves and their wallets.

The minister who didn’t resign

In charge of the scheme was then-minister for enterprise, trade and investment, Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). You might remember Foster and her party from such political positions as “gay people can’t get married”, “you don’t really need that abortion” and “line dancing is sinful so step away from that cowboy”.

Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster.

Despite being in charge of the scheme and costing Northern Ireland half a billion pounds, Foster – who was now first minister – refused to resign, saying if she did then it would “have led to the conclusion that I was guilty of something improper which is not the case”.

The minister who did resign

Every good scandal needs a resignation or two and, seeing as Foster was refusing to do so, Sinn Fein leader and deputy first minister Martin McGuinness decided they would instead – in protest.

The thing is, Northern Ireland’s government is set up in quite a delicate manner given the country’s tumultuous past and ongoing tensions between loyalists and republicans.

Sinn Fein and the DUP were a power-sharing executive who ran the devolved government, so when McGuinness resigned and his party refused to nominate a replacement, the whole thing came tumbling down, destroying the relationship between the erstwhile coalition partners in January 2017.

The fallout

As it turned out, Sinn Fein and the DUP disagreed about a lot of different things and the row over Cash for Ash sparked a range of further disputes over traditional issues that had, until that stage at least, not boiled over to threaten the stability of the executive.

Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness passed away in 2017. 

The ideological gloves were off and a wrangle over proposed legislation for Irish language speakers and the region’s ban on same-sex marriage soon emerged as further roadblocks in the path of a return to restoring the government.

Ironically, the Cash for Ash scandal that sparked the whole mess was soon forgotten about and has barely registered since during negotiations. 

The political limbo

The power-sharing impasse created a slow-burning crisis in Northern Ireland’s public services.

With no elected ministers and the government reluctant to reintroduce direct rule, civil servants have been left to run departments in a strange governance limbo-land. The situation has been getting gradually worse over three years as more and more decisions have been left untaken, PA Media reports.

But the situation has reached tipping point in recent weeks. Workers in the region’s struggling health service embarked on industrial action to highlight problems such as pay, spiralling waiting lists and staffing shortages.

There is little doubt the intense focus on the problems facing the health service has lit a fire under politicians’ feet, providing further impetus to get back round the negotiation table.

The agreement

Northern Ireland could witness a return to power-sharing on Friday if the main parties sign off on a draft agreement tabled by the UK and Irish governments.

There are still hurdles to overcome, however. Same-sex marriage is no longer up for debate as a consequence of legislation passed by MPs at Westminster earlier this year that ended the prohibition, with the first marriages due in February.

Pro-choice activists taking part in a photo call in the grounds of Stormont last year.

But the Irish language remains a key logjam. Sinn Fein has consistently made a standalone Irish Language Act a prerequisite of any deal to restore devolution.

The DUP has expressed a willingness to legislate to protect the language, but only as part of broader culture laws which also include the Ulster Scots tradition.

So the row is essentially more about presentation than substance, as both sides agree to the principle of legislating to protect the language, but are at odds over what those laws are called and whether they are contained in a standalone bill or as part of a wider piece of legislation.

Away from the language issue, there is an acknowledgement among all the parties that Stormont’s structures and practices require an overhaul. There is not yet consensus on the shape of those reforms, however.

One of the key issues that needs addressing is the controversial petition of concern voting mechanism. The mechanism, which enables large parties to effectively block change even if a majority of other MLAs agree to it, was a peace process construct designed to offer protections for minorities.

But there is a widespread sense that it has been abused, with parties using it for issues unrelated to the traditional community divide, such as on same-sex marriage and to prevent the censure of party ministers.