Events at the Stormont assembly yesterday looked bleak, but at least a return to the large-scale violence of the past is unlikelyby David McKittrick / September 11, 2015 / Leave a comment
A complete walkout of unionist members of the Northern Ireland Assembly was averted following a day of tense negotiations yesterday, though a partial withdrawal means that the future of the power sharing arrangement remains precarious.
Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Democratic Unionist party leader Peter Robinson, did not follow through with his threat to lead all his ministers out of the Assembly. Instead he announced he was standing aside—though not resigning—from his post.
He has also told three of his ministers to resign. This will leave the Assembly in being, since David Cameron turned down a Robinson request for a formal suspension, but its ruling executive will not be meeting and several departments will be left without ministers.
Weeks of talks to resolve deep differences between the DUP and Sinn Fein over IRA activity will now take place, but tensions continue to run high and David Cameron last night admitted he was “gravely concerned” about the situation. The prevailing atmosphere is one of pessimism.
His Northern Ireland Secretary, Theresa Villiers, described it as “a bad day for the Northern Ireland political process,” warning: “It is a sign of a complete breakdown in the working relationships within the executive. Power sharing only works effectively if you can have effective relationships between parties.”
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Relations between the DUP and Sinn Fein, the two largest Assembly parties, have been deteriorating for several years, with ill-tempered deadlock on the issue of welfare reform badly affecting public confidence in the institution. But their relationship has reached new depths in recent weeks following two murders of republicans on the streets of Belfast, apparently as a result of a long-standing personal feud. Northern Ireland Chief Constable George Hamilton said IRA members had been involved in the killings but added they had not been sanctioned by the organisation’s leadership.
Unionist politicians said they were shocked by his statement that the IRA is still in existence, even though he stipulated that Sinn Fein and the IRA both supported the peace process. Sinn Fein asserts that the IRA “has gone away.”
Sinn Fein described the Robinson move as “contrived.” Irish foreign minister Charlie Flanagan, said the power sharing institutions were “on the edge of the precipice.” He admitted: “I am discouraged by most of the ministers resigning. I don’t believe the institutions can limp on now indefinitely… Time is not on our side and we don’t have too many chances left.”
One of the few consoling thoughts in the crisis is that a return to the large-scale violence of the past—when more than 3,700 people were killed—is regarded as highly unlikely. Police have made it clear that although elements of the IRA remain in existence the organisation is not at all on a war footing.