The murder of Kevin McGuigan in August has been labelled by many as the spark to the current political crisis at Stormont. The potential Irish Republican Army (IRA) involvement in McGuigan’s murder has caused the First Minister, Peter Robinson of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), to resign. Robinson’s move to resign has been followed by all but one of the DUP members in the Stormont assembly. Arlene Foster has been trusted by Robinson with the role of acting First Minister, a role which Foster has taken on before in 2010 whilst Robinson was being investigated for an alleged scandal. The timing of the crisis may be surprising after almost two decades of a peace process, but it was not unpredictable; one only has to look to the events at Stormont in 2002 to see how strikingly similar the political situation is.
Incendiary remarks were made after an investigation into the McGuigan murder by police constable George Hamilton. Hamilton announced publically that the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was not only still active, but was directly involved in the murder of Kevin McGuigan. Furthermore, McGuigan’s family have also stated that they firmly believe the IRA to be behind the killing.
Gerry Kelly, Sinn Féin’s representative on the policing board has insisted that the IRA could simply not have been involved because they just do not exist. He states that republicans who may have been involved ‘cease to be republican’ by acting in this manner as ‘they are acting against the strategy of Republicanism’. However, it should be pointed out that Kelly’s reasoning seems to rest on a no true Scotsman fallacy. Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams has also commented on the ongoing situation and, like Kelly, denies the existence of a revived IRA.
Nonetheless, the arrest of Sinn Fein’s Northern Ireland chairman, Bobby Storey, in connection with McGuigan’s murder, has been used by Robinson to announce a perceived IRA threat within Stormont and has used this to essentially shut down all possible activity from the assembly. David Cameron has expressed his ‘extreme worry’ at the situation, but there is no indication yet that he will suspend the devolved institution in Northern Ireland; he has rejected Robinson’s proposal to do so. Indeed, it would be a certain setback to the image of Northern Ireland as a country able to exist separate from the rule of Westminster. Another issue facing the assembly is that, should there be a stalemate between the republican and unionist parties, there is a vacuum to be exploited by an opportunist group as has been suggested by deputy First Minister, Martin McGuiness.
Members of the DUP have said that using Foster as acting first minister keeps the devolved institution operational in “zombie form” and should give the talks process about six weeks to come to some sort of resolution. However, far from being Zombie-like, Foster said livened and even aggravated the situation by claiming she would stop “rogue Sinn Féin or renegade SDLP ministers” from making harmful decisions for the future of Northern Ireland. These comments are miscalculated at best, and at worst are fuelling the flames for anti-republican sentiment by almost demonising the republican parties as a threat to the Northern Irish people.
Looking back at the crisis of 2002, we can see that Robinson is no stranger to the suspension of the devolved institution and in fact the DUP, led by Ian Paisley, benefited hugely from it. Robinson was one of two members pulled out of the assembly at Stormont in a move which later saw the then Northern Ireland secretary, John Reid, and British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, agree to suspend devolved powers. Here, Sinn Féin were once again, rightly or wrongly, the target of accusations of facilitating the existence of the IRA as well as spying on the assembly. These accusations could not be followed up with sufficient evidence.
Nevertheless, the gains made by the DUP in 2002 must only be attributed to the resulting public distrust of republican parties caused by the crisis. Sarah Left, writing for the Guardian Newspaper during the 2002 political crisis in Stormont expressed worries that the assembly could not continue in its existing form if accusations levied against Sinn Fein such as ‘party members at Stormont were spying for the IRA’. These are not all too different accusations to the ones faced now and, as in 2002, whether the accusations are true or false, the republican parties are only facing bad press which is disastrous for public relations.
There has been much speculation as to whether or not this could bring an end to the successful peace process which has been ongoing over the past 17 years. It is probably too early to suggest that this could reignite the conflict which dominated much of the twentieth century though to reject this offhand would be naive. The crisis is a situation which has a plethora of possible outcomes ranging from the amicable to the disastrous, and to suggest which one of them is more probable would be mere speculation.
Irrespective of the outcome, I am finding it difficult to sympathise at all with DUP throughout this process. Even aside from Foster’s questionable handling of her new role as acting first minister, Robinson has, at least temporarily, rendered the devolved institution at Stormont near useless; perhaps in an intentional move to force Cameron’s hand to reinstate rule from Westminster. Further, Robinson’s assessment of an IRA threat was based on the very tenuous link of Bobby Storey who, after his questioning, is suing for unlawful arrest after little to no evidence was presented for his involvement. If you are even more cynical, you could argue that the DUP are blowing this out of all proportion to for their own political gain, much akin to the outcome after the crisis of 2002. This is a view which is not unreasonable to take, though it will have to be seen what happens and as it stands, Cameron and Theresa Villiers, Secretary for Northern Ireland, are urging for the republican and unionist parties in Northern Ireland to come to an agreement as soon as possible.