Saturday

16th Feb 2019

Northern Ireland crisis deepens

  • A reconciliation monument in Northern Ireland (Photo: NH53)

A political crisis in Northern Ireland about welfare reform and the status of armed groups that want to reunite with the Republic of Ireland, deepened on Thursday (10 September) with the unofficial resignation of first minister Peter Robinson.

Robinson also announced three other ministers from his right-wing Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) have resigned.

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  • Stormont building, place of the Northern Ireland's executive, the scene of political turmoil (Photo: Wikipedia)

He said he “technically” was not resigning but only “standing aside” - the only remaining DUP member of the executive, finance minister Arlene Foster, has taken over as acting first minister.

“I have asked Arlene to remain in post as finance minister and acting first minister to ensure that nationalists and republicans are not able to take financial and other decisions that may be detrimental to Northern Ireland”, Robinson said in a statement.

Northern Ireland, which remained a part of the United Kingdom when the rest of the island became the Irish Free State in 1922, has had a devolved power-sharing government since the peace accord of 1998.

That deal, the so-called Good Friday Agreement, established a regional assembly and executive.

The executive has to consist of parties that support remaining part of the UK (unionists) as well as those that want the region to become part of the Republic of Ireland (republicans).

What started as a dispute about the budget, with left-wing republican party Sinn Fein refusing to accept welfare reforms that are being implemented elsewhere in the UK, became an issue of trust between parties after the murder in August of a former member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), Kevin McGuigan.

Chief constable of the Northern Irish police service George Hamilton said that members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army had been involved in the murder of McGuigan.

“Some of the Provisional IRA structure from the 1990s remains broadly in place”, noted Hamilton.

Earlier this week, a senior Sinn Fein member was arrested in connection to the murder.

Bobby Storey, Sinn Fein chairman in Northern Ireland, has since been released “unconditionally” and plans to sue the police for wrongful arrest. But that was after Robinson had already tried and failed to suspend the assembly to start cross-party talks.

A suspension would mean that London would temporarily be in charge of all affairs in Northern Ireland, a prospect which was not seen as attractive by the republican parties.

For his part, Sinn Fein politician Gerry Kelly said he knew why Robinson had “stepped aside” instead of resigned, a move which would have triggered elections.

“The DUP are afraid of an election”, Kelly said.

Meanwhile, the UK and Irish governments are trying to defuse the crisis.

Northern Ireland minister Theresa Villiers (of the UK government) invited the five largest political parties in Northern Ireland for talks on Monday (14 September).

Villiers described the situation as a "complete breakdown in the working relationships within the Executive".

"Power-sharing only works effectively if you can have effective relationships between parties from different sides of the community and different parts of the political spectrum", said Villiers.

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