Martin McGuinness has resigned as deputy first minister of Northern Ireland. In doing so he has also, effectively, sacked the first minister, Arlene Foster – for under the Good Friday agreement, neither post is filled without the other. What shocked reporters even more than the announcement yesterday afternoon, though, was the apparent sharp deterioration in McGuinness’s health; yet he was adamant that this did not feature in his decision, despite speculation he is suffering from a heart condition.
To underline the point that the political context has radically changed, he said that the party would not appoint a successor but would trigger an election. And after the election it would not cement a new partnership with the Democratic Unionist party unless a range of issues were resolved. At heart, these amount to an acceptance that the DUP and Sinn Féin must be equal partners.
But is McGuinness to be taken at his word when he says that health is not the issue here? The sceptic will wonder if, faced with the need to stand down, he sought to create the maximum impact and to damage Foster, who has been resisting pressure from Sinn Féin to stand aside.
Foster, as minister for the environment three years ago, hatched a scheme to promote renewable fuels through excessively generous subsidies. This is the cash for ash” scandal, by which people actually get paid to waste energy. All parties agreed that there needed to be an inquiry into the huge financial overspend on this, and all but the DUP insisted that Foster stand aside until the inquiry reported. She refused.
Sinn Féin, which just a month ago seemed a businesslike partner of the DUP, now accuses the party of arrogance and trying to run Northern Ireland without conceding anything to republicans and other minorities. The DUP had, for instance, used a veto called a petition of concern that enabled them, with a minority share of the vote, to block same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.
From Sinn Féin’s point of view, the stentorian attitude of Foster, refusing to stand aside, and the growing feeling among their own supporters that they have been weak and pushed around, has made it necessary for them to take a tough line. But there is a high price to be paid for bringing down Stormont and forcing the British to restore direct rule. An obvious one is that the inquiry into the lavishly funded heating scheme will not now take place. McGuinness may have scuppered the very thing he was demanding.
Another problem is that the running of Northern Ireland is handed back to a Tory government until a new deal is made, and that may take years, if it ever happens at all. And with Brexit negotiations coming soon, who will be in place to insist that Northern Ireland is a special case with its land border with the EU?
Nicola Sturgeon will be arguing for “differentiation” for Scotland. It now appears that the only voice defending Northern Ireland – a region that, like Scotland, also voted to remain – will be the Tory secretary of state, James Brokenshire.
Perhaps Sinn Féin is just providing a shock for the DUP, reminding them that each party’s share of power is in the gift of the other, something which the DUP had seemed to forget. In which case there will be tension for a week, until Brokenshire is ready to call an election, and then they will agree to appoint a deputy first minister on condition that the DUP replaces Foster. That’s a possible. Another is that Sinn Féin is content to enter a long political struggle to achieve a new constitutional arrangement that will not allow unionism to eclipse republicanism. After all, they have nearly half of the 11 new super councils, and run them by majority rule. The fact they are in the west of Northern Ireland with unionist councils to the east, provides almost a semblance of repartition.
Sinn Féin is also growing in the Republic and has been concentrating most of its energies there. It could content itself that it has a bigger slice of political action on the island than unionists have, leave them a few councils to run and barely give them another thought. Or they may think that having disproved the viability of power sharing, by testing the unionists and proving them intransigent, they have cleared the way for the next stepping stone to Irish unity, joint sovereignty.
They may even think that the negotiations around Brexit and the danger of a restored hard border create the best possible context for reviving that constitutional question.
And what follows the departure of McGuinness? For now, the leading voice of Sinn Féin, north and south, is Gerry Adams. If Foster goes back to the negotiating table, that’s who she will be sitting across from. He will decide if the assembly is to be revived and he can block it if Foster insists on having her job back. And he is a much more dogmatic republican, with a record of drawing problems out rather than trying to solve them. Had he been the one to step down, this might all be easier to resolve.
Malachi O’Doherty is a writer living in Belfast. He is the author of two books on the IRA, The Trouble With Guns (1998) and The Telling Year: Belfast 1972 (2007)