An enraged electorate in Northern Ireland could deliver another Brexit moment and radically reshape the political landscape in the looming snap poll, Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has said.
Mr Nesbitt said what now seems like an almost inevitable election would be seen as a referendum on the DUP/Sinn Fein-led Stormont executive’s handling of the RHI scandal.
The bold prediction by the leader of the largest Opposition party came after former first minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster claimed a torrent of online abuse aimed at her during the ongoing crisis included one person threatening to behead her.
Northern Ireland will be going to the polls if Sinn Fein refuses to reappoint a deputy first minister to replace Mr McGuinness on Monday - and the republican party has repeatedly made clear it has no such intention.
Mr McGuinness’s withdrawal this week removed Mrs Foster from her role.
Meanwhile, GPs have threatened to resign if a rescue plan to address problems in general practice also falls victim to an executive collapse.
Mr McGuinness’s resignation was precipitated by the RHI scandal – a furore that has left Stormont facing a bill estimated by some to be £490 million – but the row has since widened to take in a range of unresolved disputes between the two ruling parties.
If they are returned as the largest parties again, the likelihood of an immediate return to power-sharing is slim and some are predicting a significant period of direct rule from Westminster to enable a major talks process to be convened.
Mr Nesbitt, clearly already in election mode, insisted it was not a foregone conclusion that Sinn Fein and the DUP would be returned to the seat of the executive at Stormont Castle.
While it would be a political shock of seismic proportions if they were not, Mr Nesbitt cautioned people not to rule it out.
Asked if Northern Ireland could experience its own “Brexit moment”, he said: “I think if you look at what’s happened since the Assembly election last May – you have had a surprise in terms of the referendum on our membership of the EU and you’ve had a surprise in terms of the American presidential election.
“Those surprises come when people get angry and people in Northern Ireland are angry about the renewable heat debacle.”
The UUP had cooperated with the DUP in previous Westminster elections. Mr Nesbitt refused to be drawn on whether he would rule out further pacts in the future.
Since going into Opposition, Mr Nesbitt and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood have portrayed themselves as an alternative partnership to lead Northern Ireland. However, on Friday, Mr Nesbitt insisted his party would not campaign on a joint ticket with the SDLP.
The DUP, for its part, has made clear it will not deliver a “republican agenda” and said the very structures of mandatory coalition powersharing need to be reviewed for it to return to Stormont Castle.
There was evidence yesterday of frantic attempts by Executive ministers to release what they perceived would be viewed as good news by their electorate ahead of the expected snap election.
Stormont ministers’ press offices released 10 statements yesterday – an unusually high number for a Friday.
• DUP Communities Minister Paul Givan announced a £3.7m investment in a public realm scheme in Lisburn – the heart of his Lagan Valley constituency;
• Mr Givan also said that he had made allocations worth £1.9m in his Community Halls Pilot Programme, which includes Orange halls.
• Sinn Fein Infrastructure Minister Chris Hazzard said that an hourly Belfast-Londonderry train service would be introduced this year;
• Sinn Fein Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir announced a £160,000 investment in the Civil Service Art Collection.
• And Mr Ó Muilleoir said that he has instructed counsel on his intention to challenge the penal provision in a law dating from 1737 (the year in which this newspaper was founded) which bans the use of Irish in courtrooms.
The latter announcement was denounced by TUV leader and QC Jim Allister said that it demonstrated an “aggressive Sinn Fein and made “no legal sense”. He added that “the administration of justice will actually be hindered by court hearings being multi-lingual”.
See Morning View, page 20