Northern Ireland crisis: what you need to know

The devolved administration is as close to collapse as it has ever been



It’s front page news in Belfast, but the murder of former IRA member Kevin McGuigan and ensuing crisis at Stormont have made few ripples in London. But the events could have huge significance for the whole UK if the power sharing coalition at Stormont collapses over them.

First minister Peter Robinson has asked David Cameron to suspend the Assembly while ministers try to resolve the situation.

So how have things reached this point, and what will happen next? Here’s what you need to know:

The Assembly has been fragile for years

The end of 2014 saw heated rounds of talks addressing a number of thorny issues, including flags, orange parades and the legacy of the Troubles. No sooner had an agreement been signed than a row over welfare reforms pushed Stormont nearly to breaking point, sparked by Sinn Fein pulling its support for measures that had been a central part ofthe agreement. Peter Robinson warned that failure to pass the reforms would result in control being handed back to Westminster.

The Assembly has previously been suspended on several occasions, once for almost five years. Sinn Fein and the IRA have always been near the heart of the disputes, with suspensions in 2000 and 2001 relating to IRA disarmament.

There are claims that the IRA is still active

The latest feud began with the murder in east Belfast of Kevin McGuigan, a former IRA member. Police believe the killing was a revenge attack by republican associates of IRA commander Gerard ‘Jock’ Davison, who was killed in May. So far 13 people have been arrested in association with McGuigan’s murder.

Northern Ireland justice minister David Ford told the Irish state broadcaster RTE:

“[The police] were talking about people who are or were members of the Provisional IRA, so clearly there is a concern … that there may be current IRA members involved.”

Sinn Fein’s membership of the Assembly rests on the dissolution of the IRA, and Peter Robinson made clear that any proven IRA connection with the murder would have drastic consequences:

“Republicans cannot be in the executive in circumstances where this murder was the work of the Provisional IRA.”

SInn Fein strongly denies these claims

Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness said he believes that:

“The IRA has left the stage and present no problem whatsoever – that they have gone and gone forever and have handed over responsibility for moving politics forward here to the politicians.”

The administration has already changed

The biggest blow to the administration was dealt by the withdrawal of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), with leader Mike Nesbitt saying the murder had broken the trust between unionists and republicans. The UUP will now enter into opposition outside of the power share. Robinson has described the decision as ‘illogical’ and accused the party of fleeing from violent republicanism rather than trying to fight it.

It is likely that Robinson’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) will try to have Sinn Feinn expelled from the executive. If this fails, there will be calls for the DUP to withdraw to signify its opposition to republican violence, leading to the collapse of the power share.

There is an election involved

Assembly elections are currently scheduled for 5 May 2016. Sinn Fein has therefore accused the UUP of manipulating the situation for political points; storming out of the executive as a way of proving that they are ‘more unionist’ than the DUP. McGuinness said yesterday:

“Let’s be brutally honest about this. The leader of the UUP seized upon this for purely naked political advantage against the DUP and he played fast and loose with the peace process.

“He ran the risk of seeing the DUP walk out of these institutions and the peace process being left hanging at the mercy of violent extremists on all sides.

If the DUP withdraws and the Assembly collapses, the elections will have to be brought forward, probably to this Autumn.

Peter Robinson is turning to Westminster for help

Today the DUP leader has asked David Cameron to jail two former IRA members, Sean Kelly and Mark McDowell , who were released under the Good Friday Agreement. They were recently arrested as part of the McGuigan investigation (and released without charge), and Robinson told the Belfast Telegraph that they had been in breach of their license agreements. This has been mounted as a kind of test for Sinn Fein; if it opposes the imprisonment Robinson and other unionists will likely point to it as evidence of its sympathy with violence

Robinson has also called for a new monitoring body to report on the state of paramilitary activity within Northern Ireland. All talks taking place will have to encompass December’s Stormont Agreement, and for now there is consensus over discussions going ahead.

But these events have raised huge doubts about the continued feasibility of a power share in Northern Ireland, between parties whose troubled relations are still far from being resolved.

Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left foot Forward

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6 Responses to “Northern Ireland crisis: what you need to know”

  1. eireanne

    “these events have raised huge doubts about the continued feasibility of a power share in Northern Ireland,”-

    Maybe it’s time to try something else like joint authority with the Irish government.

    It’s never been attempted and it offers a lot of advantages for the UK government – not least lower costs as
    MLAs, their parties and staff cost more than £18 million of public money each year

  2. David Lindsay

    It certainly would be news if the Northern Ireland Executive were to collapse. But that is extremely unlikely to happen. Quite simply, far too much money depends on its continuation. It is also possible that Unionists in Northern Ireland have begun to realise how little sympathy they could expect in Great Britain.

    Consider the abuse that is heaped on Scotland and the North of England, while Wales is simply ignored, for the expense that we apparently incur by, at least in the North’s case, being denied the infrastructure that the South East assumes as a matter of course. Well, Northern Ireland is in a different league, with a colossal public sector alongside numerous other features a great distance removed from the views of The Times or of The Sun, or from those of most readers of the Daily Mail or of the Daily Telegraph.

    As well as the spending, the Britishness that Unionism in Northern Ireland exists to defend includes a very high level of political participation by fundamentalist clergymen, acting as such. Does that sound remotely like Britain? The name of Margaret Thatcher is abominated by Unionists from Northern Ireland in terms that I have never even heard from ex-miners. The latter just swear a lot, and compare her to Hitler. But the former very literally damn her to Hell, with the full rhetorical force of the King James Bible.

    Everyone has always known that the IRA was still in existence. But the Good Friday Agreement had put a lid on most of its activities in Northern Ireland, as well as on all of them in Great Britain. People in Great Britain prefer it that way, and are now very well used to it that way.

    So, if there were any hint of a return to IRA activity on the Mainland due to the withdrawal of both Unionist parties from the Executive, then the message from the Mainland would be unmistakable: “We are not, under any circumstances, going through that again. You are on your own.”

    A thoroughly aristocratic Conservative Government simply withdrew from the Kenya of Happy Valley and all that, and the most petty bourgeois of Conservative Prime Ministers finalised the independence of Zimbabwe. The larger Unionist party in Northern Ireland already seems to have got the message.

    For, if Unionist withdrawal from power-sharing ever did threaten a return to IRA violence on the Mainland, then the voice of Middle England would turn out to be, not even Jeremy Corbyn as he really existed, but Jeremy Corbyn as reported by his enemies.


    David Lindsay.That is probably the biggest load of shite I have read about my ancestors. But do carry on the smell will live on.

  4. JoeDM

    And your sort would hand over the good British people of the Falklands to the Argies !!!

  5. JoeDM

    So the truth comes to the surface despite all of the Governments weasel words. The IRA / Sinn Fien are still killing people.

  6. eireanne

    if nearly 50% of the Falkland islanders were to want Argentinian rule (as nationalist/republicans in NI want Irish rule) then joint sovreignty should certainly be on the table.

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