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Explainer: What on earth is going on in Northern Ireland?

With the executive on the brink of collapse, what are the likely outcomes?

Image: PA Wire/PA Images

NORTHERN IRELAND HAS had a massive return to the headlines in recent weeks with the withdrawal of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) from the power-sharing executive and many other parties officially declaring their unwillingness to suspend the government until the situation is resolved.

With Peter Robinson resigning as First Minister yesterday, the executive has been saved for now by the retention of Arlene Foster as temporary first minister.

The current crisis was precipitated by the murder of former IRA member Kevin McGuigan in Belfast last month.

In the fall-out from that killing the chief constable of the PSNI suggested both that the IRA is still operational and that they were involved in the killing.

Subsequently, the UUP under leader Mike Nesbitt voted to remove themselves from the power-sharing executive as they had “lost trust” in Sinn Féin and that “without trust we have nothing”.

Britain Northern Ireland Stormont Crisis Peter Robinson Source: AP/Press Association Images

With the SDLP and Sinn Féin both voting against a suspension of the executive until the current mess is sorted out, and Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers denying a request for same from the DUP, the northern political system would seem to be currently at absolute crisis point.

There have been suggestions that the UUP’s initial move was a variety of political jockeying, with the hope of gaining an advantage over the larger DUP, of which Robinson is leader.

Sinn Féin for their part insist that the IRA is a spent force and that they personally can’t be held accountable for the actions of a few dissidents.

With that in mind:

How did this come to pass?

The killing of Kevin McGuigan in early August, allegedly a revenge killing for the murder of another former IRA man Jock Davison, saw the perpetrators making a landmark decision. In assassinating Davison they precipitated the political crisis that is now unfolding.

By taking matters into their own hands rather than letting the PSNI handle things, the gate was opened for Unionists to take aim at Sinn Féin from within the executive.

Kevin McGuigan shooting Undated family photo of murdered former IRA man Kevin McGuigan Source: Family handout/PSNI

Writing soon after the UUP voted en masse to remove their one minister from the executive (but not the Assembly), Peter Robinson said that the UUP’s actions were merely an example of “political expediency” rather than any statement of political principle.

That may be the case, but the stark reality of the UUP’s actions is that the Northern Irish government is facing the possibility of the collapse of power-sharing for the first time in eight years.

What can happen next?

The executive is currently hanging by a thread, with the resignation of every DUP minister but one seeing Arlene Foster as a stop-gap solution to ensure the executive doesn’t collapse.

That has bought the DUP a week’s breathing space before they have to re-nominate for the position of first minister, a week in which the executive exists in name only as it won’t be sitting at any stage. The main reason for this is it denies Sinn Féin and the SDLP unilateral access to the Northern Irish financial system in the interim.

With that in mind the various parties have a matter of six weeks, as dictated by Villiers, to convince the disgruntled Unionists that they can trust Sinn Féin in a position of government.

Both British and Irish governments will now lock all sides in a series of talks until some sort of resolution is reached. And if no resolution is found an election is an inevitability.

NI Executive crisis Northern Irish Secretary Theresa Villiers Source: PA Wire/PA Images

What is likely to happen next?

An awful lot of talking. The five main parties (UUP, DUP, Sinn Féin, SDLP, and the Alliance Party) will have to sit down and trash things out.

If they can’t, the power-sharing executive will collapse for the first time since 2002. Back then it took them five years to get the executive up and running again, something Northern Irish political expert David McCann sees as being the likely minimum in this case.

“The UUP say they won’t attend the crisis talks unless the IRA is top of the agenda, and Sinn Féin say there is no IRA, that we’re dealing with criminals pure and simple. So that’s the impasse,” he told TheJournal.ie.

In my opinion what you’re seeing is a staged withdrawal from government by the DUP, the largest party, and that the whole executive will have collapsed by Halloween.

Which would mean a return to direct rule from Westminster.

Why are they letting this happen?

It may be simply a question of natural change. The DUP’s leader Peter Robinson is coming to the end of his career and his party is looking to consolidate its elected numerical superiority over the UUP.

Meanwhile Nesbitt’s UUP are becoming increasingly bold following a number of positive election results in recent years.

NI Executive crisis Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt Source: Niall Carson

These two parties just do not seem to trust any agreement they arrive at with Sinn Féin, who for their part may have reached peak political penetration in the north, and who in fact have recently been ceding ground to People Before Profit.

The south now seems to be Sinn Féin’s major focus, and where the major political prizes are to be won as far as they are concerned.

Long-term what will happen? Is a return to full scale fighting a possibility?

No. There’s no stomach for a return to the gun on any side of the impasse, not least the Republican side. Quite apart from anything else, if the IRA were to be re-militarised it would most likely spell disaster for Sinn Féin’s grand political ambitions in the south.

“We’re probably looking at at least five years of direct rule,” says McCann.

And when power-sharing returns don’t expect Gerry Adams to be involved, because the Unionists simply don’t trust him.

McCann believes that direct rule will mean likely welfare reform north of the border, with other issues such as water charges and same-sex marriage coming to the fore.

Although one thing appears certain – even if power-sharing fails MLAs continue to be elected representatives and therfore maintain their salary (something Mike Nesbitt argued against just last week). Not bad for politicians without a parliament to sit in.

Read: Gerry Adams: Stormont walkout is a ‘contrived crisis’

Read: Gerry Adams: Sinn Féin had nothing to do with Kevin McGuigan’s murder

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