Northern Ireland is in the grip of a deep political crisis.
The power-sharing administration in the six northern Irish counties still claimed by Britain between the Irish republican party Sinn Fein and the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) collapsed when Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigned on January 9 and called for new elections.
Explaining his decision to resign, McGuinness cited “growing DUP arrogance and lack of respect, whether that was for women, our LGBT community, ethnic minorities or the Irish-language community and identity.”
The catalyst was the refusal DUP First Minister Arlene Forster to heed Sin Fein calls step aside or allow an independent inquiry over her role in a huge scandal involving a government-sponsored energy program.
However, it is only the latest flashpoint in growing anger from Sinn Fein and the nationalist community over a series of issues ranging from corruption, lack of progress on equality measures, destabilisation of the peace process and British-pushed austerity measures.
The principles of power-sharing are part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that aimed to end decades of violence between republicans groups and the British military occupation and pro-British loyalist forces.
The conflict broke out after a civil rights movement, which arose in the late 1960s to call for equality in Northern Ireland, was violently repressed by police, pro-British gangs and eventually the British army directly.
The Northern Ireland state was established when Ireland was partition in 1922 at the end of the Irish War of Independence, with Britain retaining its rule over six of Ireland’s 32 counties. The state was set up to guarantee an artificial majority for the largely pro-British Protestant community, with Northern Irish rulers explicitly declaring it a “Protestant parliament for Protestant people”.
The largely nationalist Catholic minority was reduced to second-class status. In the 21st century, despite the peace process and power-sharing, many of the issues created by partition remain unresolved.
Sinn Fein continues to campaign for a united Ireland — an issue that has been given fresh momentum by Britain’s “Brexit” vote, with most in Northern Ireland voting to remain in the European Union.
Social and economic issues have also been greatly worsened by austerity measures imposed on Northern Ireland from London, which still controls its budget and has imposed savage cuts. Sinn Fein has protested the austerity and clashed with the DUP over spending cuts and attacks on welfare.
Sinn Fein says it remains committed to the principles of power-sharing, but is refusing to enter an administration with the DUP unless its concerns are dealt with. McGuinness has said there would be “no return to the status quo”. With last minute talks failing, it appears certain new elections will be held.
Anger at DUP arrogance over the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal, known as “cash for ash”, extends well beyond Sinn Fein. Writing in Derry Now on January 12, former DN editor Garbhan Downey said that “it’s clear by now that no self-respecting republican, nationalist, conscientious unionist or independent is ever going back into any administration alongside the current brand of DUP”.
In a January 12 column in republican paper An Phoblacht, McGuinness wrote: “Over the course of the last ten years, I, along with my party colleagues, worked tirelessly to ensure the political institutions deliver for everyone in our community…
“We worked to promote partnership, equality and reconciliation. We worked to see the potential of the Good Friday and other agreements realised.”
“In contrast,” McGuinness said, the DUP “never fully embraced the ideals which underpin the Good Friday Agreement.”
He said the DUP has “acted with disrespect and at times outright bigotry towards the Irish language … They also showed no regard for the identity, traditions and symbols of the nationalist and republican people.
McGuinness added: “Successive British governments have also failed in their responsibilities to the Good Friday Agreement and other agreements.
“They have totally failed to meet their obligations on addressing the legacy of the past, the introduction of a Bill of Rights, legislation to protect the rights of the Irish-language community, and many other issues.
“This — combined with their relentless adherence to a punishing austerity agenda and their determination to drag the North out of the EU against the wishes of the people — has deepened the growing crisis of confidence in politics and the political institutions.”
McGuinness repeated calls for Foster to step aside and allow an independent inquiry into the “cash for ash” scandal. He said this was not an “Orange and Green issue”, rather about the “need to tackle allegations of corruption and have the highest standards of governance so that people can have confidence in the political institutions”.
He concluded: “We need to get back to the principles of the Good Friday Agreement: equality, partnership and respect. Without these, we do not have genuine power-sharing institutions.”