Yesterday's announcement by Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness that he is resigning as Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland throws devolution and cross-community power-sharing into a new period of uncertainty.
The coalition between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party was already strained by the Brexit vote, with First Minister Arlene Foster a committed Leaver and Sinn Fein fearing the impact of Brexit on relations with the Republic of Ireland. Sensitive ‘legacy’ issues relating to the Troubles also linger unresolved.
McGuiness’ resignation comes now amid allegations of misuse of public funds in relation to a renewable energy scheme, which have damaged the personal standing of the First Minister.
What happens next? Under the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the devolved government in Belfast must comprise the largest party from each of the unionist and nationalist communities, and must be headed by nominees of those two parties. McGuinness’s resignation letter states explicitly that his party will not nominate an alternative candidate for Deputy First Minister within the stipulated seven day period.
This means that the UK Government will have to give the order for an early election in the six counties, just eight months after the last poll.
But will an election change anything? As the chart above shows, the harder-line DUP and Sinn Fein have been the dominant forces within their respective communities since 2007, having eclipsed their more moderate rivals, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).
The uneasy partnership between the DUP and Sinn Fein has threatened to fall apart on more than one occasion. Only intensive diplomacy (and extra funding commitments) from the UK and Irish Governments have kept the show on the road.
Until last year, smaller parties sat around the cabinet table alongside the two main parties but in May 2016, the UUP, SDLP and Alliance all opted to enter opposition instead. In one sense, this moved Northern Ireland towards a more ‘normal’ political framework: with a governing coalition held to account by various opposition parties. However, it also removed centrist parties who could help facilitate compromise.
The well-entrenched dominance of the DUP and Sinn Fein makes fundamental political realignment an unlikely outcome of the latest crisis, although minor parties may add to the gains they made at last year’s election (see chart). What is more likely to change is the leadership.
Martin McGuinness has been suffering from undisclosed health problems and may well choose this moment to pass on the baton, while Arlene Foster may or may not ride out the current scandal. But whoever fills the top jobs, the two old rival parties will almost certainly have to work together again to prevent a complete collapse of devolution and a resumption of direct rule from London.