The Northern Irish government can only function, by law, with an Executive that is a partnership between a nationalist/republican party and a unionist one. This came to an end today when Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigned, citing Arlene Foster’s refusal to resign over her role in the RHI scandal. This doesn’t in and of itself mean that an election will take place however in his resignation speech, McGuinness said that Sinn Féin shall not be nominating another candidate for the position of Deputy First Minister. It is this second aspect of his resignation that makes another election inevitable.
At the press conference where he announced his resignation, McGuinness pointed out that he has personally worked with unionists over a number of years, but that the “arrogance of the DUP” over a number of issues has made continued co-operation impossible. McGuinness went on to say that “there will be no return to the status quo except on terms that are acceptable to Sinn Féin”. The election that will follow will be an opportunity for the political parties of Northern Ireland to engage with an electorate that is desperately looking for an end to the intransigence at Stormont.
As well as the RHI scandal, McGuinness claimed that there were a number of other questions over the conduct of the DUP in recent times. He specifically referred to the cancellation of funding for Irish language programmes and the refusal to approve funding for an inquest into killings during The Troubles. He also said that his decision to step down was nothing to do with his recent ill health.
Unsurprisingly the DUP have denied McGuinness’ accusations of arrogance. DUP MP Sammy Wilson said the Deputy First Minister stepped down in a way to “deepen this crisis”, and that it was in “everbody’s interests to try and pull back from the brink on this one and find a solution”. This response is clear evidence of the DUP trying to hang on to power with a politically toxic leader. No more, no less.
The decision to resign was the right one as it now forces the DUP to fight an election with a leader who has a clear conflict of interest and this will hopefully change the balance of power in Stormont. I’m not expecting the upcoming Assembly election to throw up a nationalist/republican majority of MLAs, but I do believe some DUP voters will switch to the UUP, TUV, or Alliance, and thus force the DUP to change tack. Given the NI Assembly elections are fought with a form of proportional representation, there is no spoiler effect and as such unionists can switch their votes without ‘risking’ a nationalist candidate is elected.
If Arlene Foster wants to get the Assembly functioning again she needs to step aside. Her handling of the RHI scandal has been terrible and as the then minister in charge of the scheme, she must concede to a full public inquiry and tender her resignation. The people of Northern Ireland deserve a leader who has these lingering questions hanging over them.