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Northern Ireland faces instability as Martin McGuinness steps down from frontline politics

January 20, 2017, 8:40am

Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive has collapsed after more than a decade, leaving the country on the edge of political crisis and forcing a new election on March 2.

Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness resigned from frontline politics Thursday, announcing he will not stand in the upcoming election due to poor health. McGuinness also quit his role as Deputy First Minister this month, in protest over the First Minister Arlene Foster’s handling of a botched green energy scheme dubbed ‘Cash for Ash’ that is due to cost U.K. taxpayers over £1BN ($1.2BN). The devolved parliament will be formally dissolved on Jan. 26 ahead of the new vote.


The dispute laid bare the still bitter divisions between the power-sharing groups. The two parties are completely at odds over how to deal with so-called ‘legacy issues’ – including the Irish Language act, which was part of the agreement but has been long dismissed by the DUP.

Another crucial issue surrounds the thousands of unsolved murders that took place during the so-called Troubles. Sinn Féin is accusing the U.K. government of not giving the families of those killed by police and army officers adequate information on how they died, whilst the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is fearful of a ‘witch-hunt’ against retired members of the various forces that served during the conflict.

The DUP, mindful of the hammering the ‘Cash for Ash’ scandal could deliver them on March 2, are attempting to frame the upcoming election as an attempt to depose Foster, so that Sinn Féin can push through investigations that could see soldiers and police officers facing murder charges.

DUP member Dale Pankhurst told Vice News that he believed the ‘Cash-for-Ash’ scandal was being used as a “smokescreen” for Sinn Féin’s “real agenda – which is a list of demands for republicans.” He continued: “Legacy is toxic: soldiers and loyalists are being hounded. It’s completely unacceptable to Unionists. Arlene Foster has made it clear she will defend Unionism and Sinn Féin’s list of demands are simply ludicrous.”


Brexit has also helped to turn a political scandal into a constitutional crisis, as 56% of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain in Europe. While the DUP campaigned to leave, Sinn Féin’s Chris Hazzard told Vice News that Foster’s position on Brexit was unacceptable, and had influenced the party’s decision to take down the executive: “The majority of people in the north of Ireland do not want to leave the European Union and they are being forced into an exit they do not want by a First Minister who is ignoring their wishes.”

The Power-Sharing Executive was part of the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement that ended a bitter 30-year civil conflict that claimed nearly 4,000 lives. McGuinness was seen as a vital player in the historic peace process, and there are fears that the collapse of the executive will threaten Northern Ireland’s hard-won stability. If, after the elections a power-sharing executive cannot be agreed, the government can call another election, or revert to ‘direct rule’ from Westminster – something Hazzard says “would be absolutely unacceptable.”

Though the overwhelming majority of people on both sides of the community no longer have any appetite for violence, former paramilitaries now occupy leadership positions across a range of government-funded community projects and there has been a growing threat from dissidents gently simmering for the past number of years.

Exacerbated by austerity, and assisted by an explosion of Facebook groups that spew hatred and romanticize the conflict, paramilitary activity has risen over the past year, whilst the number of murders linked to paramilitary involvement in 2016 more than doubled. In 2016, 49 people were shot by paramilitaries and 64 people were victims of so-called ‘punishment beatings.’ Police also responded to a total of 27 separate bombing incidents across the province.

The reaction to McGuinness announcing his departure again demonstrates just how little shared ground there appears to be. Feted in his home city by emotional crowds as he vowed to never leave Sinn Féin, he was thanked by the son of former DUP leader Ian Paisley for his efforts to make peace, but other statements from the DUP and UUP were frosty and pointed. Victims of IRA violence were even less positive.

Ann Travers, whose sister was killed by the IRA in 1984, told the BBC: “Martin McGuinness has been allowed to go on a journey, many of the IRA’s victims haven’t. They were swept aside in a sea of political correctness.”