A New Year’s Resolution?

05 January 2017 - by Claire Flynn

The year has opened in dramatic style. We look at what to expect, possibly, in the coming weeks.

Sinn Féin has been upping the ante this week, announcing that there had been no agreement with the DUP on an independent inquiry over Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI). The party also issued a fresh appeal for the First Minister, Arlene Foster, to step aside. She has, however, continued to resist such calls, in spite of the growing pressure emanating from all parties and, today, from within the DUP, former North Antrim MLA David McIlveen going as far as to suggest that the party's next scheduled Assembly electoral contest (in 2021) would not be fought under Mrs Foster's leadership. If the political institutions in Northern Ireland have indeed arrived at a "tipping point", to quote Sinn Féin's Declan Kearney MLA, a snap election might well be on the cards.

 If Martin McGuinness was to resign as deputy First Minister, what would happen next?

  • Under the Northern Ireland Act (1998), the Secretary of State must call an election if the offices of First Minister or deputy First Minister remain vacant for over seven days without replacements being nominated. The Secretary of State may propose any date for this election, which will then be set by an Order in Council providing for the dissolution of the current Assembly.

  • The election timetable will begin once the Assembly is dissolved.  If the Assembly is recalled next week and, if the deputy First Minister resigns at that stage, and if we then see a swift election announcement from the Secretary of State, an election could take place as early as mid to late February. However, some time in March seems more likely.

  • An election, if called, will bring into force new legislation reducing the number of MLAs from 108 to 90 – five seats instead of six in each of the 18 constituencies will be the new reality. Such a development meets the 2021 deadline for that reduction, settled in the Stormont House/Fresh Start Agreements, much sooner than expected

  • While MLAs and officials are working on ways to deal with the RHI overspend, an election won’t be kind on the public coffers. According to figures put out by the Electoral Commission (these are still subject to being finalised later this year), the 2016 Assembly election cost approximately £3.1 million plus £1.8 million for candidate mailings (each candidate is entitled to free postage on one piece of election material to be sent to all electors in the constituency). Add in the reported spending from the 10 parties (£343,558), the approximate cost of an election is over £5 million. This figure does not, of course, include candidate expenditure, nor can we view any information on the donations received by parties which may have helped to further fund election campaigns.


So what’s ahead for 2017?

  • Pressure on Sinn Féin and the DUP to come to some agreement, thus avoiding a costly election and further damage to the public face of politics.

  • Uncertainty about the future dynamic of Stormont’s Executive in the aftermath of the RHI scheme.

  • Renewed demands for Assembly Speaker Robin Newton to step down.

  • Connor Murphy could succeed Martin McGuinness as deputy First Minister due to the latter’s ill health.

  • Programme for Government & Budget – the Executive's five-year plan, Budget and supporting strategies will be delayed, though the pressue to get back on track before the summer recess will increase, election or no election.

  • We await the formal triggering of Article 50 and the start of the government's Brexit negotiations.

  • A revisiting of other (older) hot issues, such as the furore around Charter NI and the ongoing investigation into the NAMA affair.


How can Stratagem help?

As seasoned public affairs professionals, we have supported a wide range of organisations to navigate the political and policy-making process during 2016, and reflect with pride on their many successes. Looking ahead to 2017, regardless of the uncertainties, the Stratagem team would like to offer you our top tips for achieving success in your policy and public affairs endeavours:

  1. Focus: be clear on your purpose/goals for the year, as well as identifying the key stakeholders in helping you achieve these

  2. Evidence: ensure you have the necessary evidence base to advance your objectives

  3. Relevant: rather than adding to policymakers' ‘to do’ lists, look at the solutions you can offer to deliver better outcomes for citizens;

  4. Informed: be aware of how your issues fit within government’s other priorities and enable your organisation to move from reacting, to being proactive;

  5. Resources: take advantage of new opportunities that will arise from the imminent change.

Regardless of how successful you were in 2016, we’d love to hear from you about your corporate goals for the year ahead, and if, perhaps, we can provide that extra support to help push these over the line. Whether it’s polling MLAs on your issues via our spring 2017 MLA Research Panel, conducting a stakeholder mapping session, or availing of high level strategic advice, including campaign support to advance your priorities with Government, we’re ready to help.

A very happy and successful 2017, from the Stratagem team