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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