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Northern Ireland

It is perhaps a sign of progress that the latest issue to imperil a devolved administration in Ulster is not a fresh outbreak of violence or inter-communal tension, but a public finances scandal rooted in a green energy scheme.

Arlene Foster, the First Minister of Northern Ireland and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, faces a motion of no confidence today. In fact, there are two.

The first, tabled by the nationalist SDLP, is backed by a rainbow coalition of opposition parties including the Greens and People Before Profit on the left and the Ulster Unionists and Traditional Unionist Voice on the right.

More seriously, however, Sinn Fein announced yesterday that they will be bringing their own motion. The republicans are the DUP’s only partners in the coalition running the Northern Ireland Executive.

Each demands that the First Minister step aside for the duration of an independent inquiry into the ‘Renewable Heat Incentive’ scheme, a programme intended to create a financial incentive for businesses to use green energy.

Due to there being no limit on the amount claimed – as covered in last week’s Red, White, and Blue – some were able to turn huge profits by needlessly burning fuel, at a cost to taxpayers of more than £400 million. The whole thing has now been dubbed ‘cash for ash’.

Foster introduced the RHI scheme in 2012, but was really landed in hot water earlier this week when Jonathan Bell, a DUP MLA and former colleague, alleged that her special advisors had been trying to ‘cleanse’ Stormont records of her culpability, and that she demanded he keep the scheme running despite the losses.

Since that interview Bell has been suspended by the DUP, threatened legal action against the First Minister, and had a top civil servant disprove at least one of his allegations.

It also now looks as if the lack of price capping was the result of a curiously specific failure to copy the relevant regulation over from mainland legislation. According to the News Letter’s Sam McBride, the section covering price caps is the one, very expensive gap in a law that is otherwise “a copy and paste of its GB counterpart”.

Northern Ireland’s institutions are built to try to withstand such instability, and the Belfast Telegraph reports that “the DUP can use a special parliamentary procedure to prevent the motion’s passage even if Sinn Fein supports it.”

The party seems minded to tough it out, at least for the moment, although more fresh evidence against Foster may have come to light this morning. Whether or not she could realistically continue when all the other parties have called on her to step aside remains to be seen.

If Foster were to stand aside, the consequences might not be confined to Northern Ireland: a new leader, even if temporary, may alter the new and increasingly friendly dynamic between the DUP and the Conservatives. Tory whips will be keeping a close eye on who ends up in command of the eight Democratic Unionist MPs.

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