Northern Ireland's peace falters as coalition power sharing ends

23 Jan 2017



Martin McGuiness, the outgoing deputy first minister of Northern Ireland has quit frontline politics. His sudden departure has deepened political crisis at Stormont. The 66-year old republican and former chief of staff of the Provisional IRA was a central figure in the peace process for almost three decades. But, power sharing between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionists has broken down, with McGuinness stating "having kept the institutions intact I find myself with no other alternative but to resign".


Effectively, McGuinness has sacked the first minister, Arlene Foster, and under the Good Friday Agreement neither post can be filled without the other - a crucial caveat to the 'sharing of power’; where Nationalists and Unionists are forced to work together. A snap election has been called for March 2nd, and McGuinness will not be standing as a candidate due to ill health. As the party's chief negotiator during the peace process, McGuinness shifted the republican strategy from 'armed struggle' to democratic politics and his pivotal role will be a loss as Northern Ireland watches a new political drama unfold.


To highlight the scale of the political upheaval, it is likely that the election results will result in the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin once again as the two largest parties; two parties who’ve reached stalemate, with little to agree on. If you’ve been following this political story you might argue that McGuinness was just trying to create the maximum impact and perhaps he was. His resignation speech made it clear that Sinn Féin were not prepared to sign a new partnership with the DUP until a range of issues were resolved.


Little is being done to promote the trust and cooperation that is essential to making power negotiation work. The election in March is over a botched renewable heating scheme, which will leave taxpayers facing a bill of almost £400 million. Foster, in her previous role as environment minister hatched a scheme called 'cash for ash', whereby people actually got paid to waste energy.


All parties at Stormont, except the DUP, agreed that an inquiry was needed into the financial overspend and to allow this Ms Foster should step aside temporarily until the inquiry reported; but, unfortunately she refused and so it fell to McGuinness to bring forward a coup against the Northern Ireland Executive. Listening to Mr McGuinness give his verdict there was a sense of 'no more playing Mr NiceGuy'. Ms Foster’s denial bordering on arrogance has proved too much for Sinn Féin, a party which in late 2016 still gave full backing to help the administration remain intact. So, yes perhaps McGuinness’s health had a role in his decision, but more fundamentally was a growing discontent amongst nationalist supporters that they must take a hard line to prevent being seen as weak and pushed around.


And they have a point. When you dig a little deeper you find a distinctively pro-unionist agenda with cuts to bursaries for poor Irish language students not to mention funds for loyalist marching bands. The assembly which took years to build has crumbled and bringing down Stormont has forced the British government to restore direct rule from Westminster. Uncertainty now governs Northern Ireland with no government budget agreed for the 2017/18 financial year. Brexit negotiations are on the horizon and already the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Enda Kenny re-iterated his wish for "a preservation of the seamless border that is there now". Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU referendum by a majority of 56% to 44% and not having a direct representative there and ready to insist its special case is not ideal.


Sinn Féin have sent an ultimatum to the DUP to remind them that each party’s share of power is in the gift of the other, something which the unionists have forgot. McGuinness’s time as leader included shaking hands with British royalty but resulted too in new friendships with former unionist enemies, most notably the Rev Ian Paisley; which in turn, heralded the signing of the 2006 St Andrews agreement. This most unlikely of friendships did involve some kind of chemistry, but was born out of McGuiness’s long term political agenda - too make the institutions work. Sinn Féin rocked the boat first by refusing to turn up to executive meetings for six months, in a long-forgotten huff. But after that initial setback, there came a relentless DUP pushback on just about every issue imaginable. Both sides are guilty of 'tit-for-tat'.

Sinn Féin is now prepared to stick it out for the long-term to achieve a new constitutional arrangement to ensure that unionism does not eclipse republicanism. Times are changing. The ratio of Protestants to Catholics in Northern Ireland has fallen dramatically: once it was 2:1; at the 2011 census only 48% declared themselves Protestant, with 45% Catholic. McGuinness had the discipline and authority which the peace talks required and it is important to keep the momentum in a territory where identity politics continues to supercede the real substantive issues of deprivation and unemployment which face this part of the UK.


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