Explainer: why did the government fall apart in Northern Ireland?

Northern Ireland First Minister and Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Peter Robinson. Reuters/Cathal McNaughton

“Cloud and rain for Northern Ireland” said the weather forecast on the radio just before coverage switched to the resignation of Peter Robinson, the first minister of Northern Ireland.

The political weather has been quite grim for many months in this part of the UK. Northern Ireland’s two main parties – Robinson’s Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin – govern together as part of a power sharing agreement but have reached an impasse.

The two sides have been arguing for some time over welfare cuts and have failed to agree on a budget as a result.

Conditions then turned stormy when the local police said members of the IRA were involved in the murder of Kevin McGuigan in Belfast in August. The IRA was supposed to have been disbanded and disarmed in 2005 so the suggestion that it is still active – and still possesses some lethal capacity – was unacceptable to Robinson and the DUP, as well as the smaller Ulster Unionist Party.

Sinn Féin, which advocates for the reunification of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland, is closely associated with the IRA. Many Sinn Féin members and representatives, including deputy first minister Martin McGuinness, have served as IRA volunteers.

This close relationship has long been a source of contention for those parties who wish to see Northern Ireland remain part of the United Kingdom, not least the Democratic Unionist Party. One key condition for the DUP entering into government with Sinn Féin in 2007 was the latter’s commitment to achieving their goals through entirely democratic means, removing the gun from Northern Irish politics.

Any association between a coalition partner and an armed paramilitary organisation would not be tolerated by unionists, so the arrest of a senior Sinn Féin member in connection with the McGuigan murder caused consternation among the unionist ranks and sent power-sharing into a tail-spin.

Storming out of Stormont

Robinson and all his ministers except one resigned from the power sharing executive. Pressing pause on power-sharing, it was argued, would provide the space for cross-party talks (overseen by both the British and Irish governments) to clarify the current status of the IRA and its relationship with Sinn Féin.

The resignations could trigger an election, although it is unclear whether they will. Robinson’s decision to keep one minister in place, in the form of Arlene Foster, essentially keeps power-sharing going. Foster, the DUP finance minister, will act as first minister while talks continue.

Acting Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster from the DUP. EPA/STF

Robinson has done this out of fear that the nationalist parties would exploit the political vacuum created by the current crisis (and the DUP’s absence from the executive) to make decisions it would have opposed.

To borrow a cricketing analogy, Robinson has left Foster there as something of a nightwatchman. Her role is to defend the wicket while the rest of the team resides in the clubhouse, removed from the field of play.

The heart of the matter

In part, the DUP’s retention of the financial brief illustrates that the underlying division between the DUP and Sinn Féin on economic issues is at the heart of the current crisis. Disagreement on economic issues – a stalemate which is rapidly exhausting the region’s coffers – has eroded what little trust existed between the parties. The power-sharing government, mired in such a toxic atmosphere, could simply not sustain a further crisis over links between the IRA and Sinn Féin.

If the current crisis leads to an election, both unionist parties will seek to castigate Sinn Féin for its relationship with the IRA to win votes. And on the nationalist side Sinn Féin will seek to highlight its anti-austerity economics.

Sinn Féin has left-wing economic leanings in Northern Ireland. It has opposed attempts by the DUP to pass welfare reforms in March, arguing they had “acted in bad faith on welfare protections”.

This is important to buttress its political strategy in the Republic of Ireland. Giving in to welfare cuts in the north would leave the party vulnerable to criticisms in the south as an election approaches.

Now what?

From the perspective of Westminster and Dublin, the “process” part of the peace process has always been crucial. Both governments will push hard for inter-party talks in Northern Ireland to avoid a political vacuum. This vacuum, they fear, could be filled by dissidents or political spoilers.

And there may yet be the space and time for inter-party talks to succeed. In the crisis-rich landscape of Northern Ireland, political actors have proven themselves highly adept at manoeuvring out of tight corners. Robinson’s decision to keep Foster in place may, in time, prove to be yet another example of such crafty ingenuity.

The problem, however, is that the DUP and and Sinn Féin disagree on a daunting list of issues – and that list is getting longer all the time. Cross-party negotiations would need to address and resolve the status of the IRA, break the deadlock on welfare reform and revisit the other outstanding issues contained in the Stormont House Agreement, such as flags, parades and the handling of past Troubles-related crimes.

Added to this, the unionist parties have made it clear they want to substantially reform the power-sharing institutions established by the 1998 Belfast Agreement. Often, a crisis in Northern Ireland is dealt with by bringing in a kindly grey-haired uncle from the US to help chair talks. Given the scale of the task, many such ex-politicians and diplomats may be keeping their phones switched off over the coming days.