Tuesday 20 March 2018

Stormont on brink of collapse as DUP's Robinson steps down as NI First Minister

DUP party leader and Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson leads his fellow party members to the exit after a press conference at Stormont
DUP party leader and Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson leads his fellow party members to the exit after a press conference at Stormont

Noel McAdam

Stormont has moved closer to the political abyss as DUP ministers dramatically resigned over Sinn Féin links to the Provisional IRA.

Crisis turned to turmoil as First Minister Peter Robinson stepped aside - and named his replacement, Arlene Foster - rather than formally resign.

He said Mrs Foster will also stay on as Finance Minister as a "gatekeeper" to ensure Sinn Féin and SDLP Ministers cannot make decisions "detrimental to Northern Ireland".

As tension between the Executive parties escalated, Bobby Storey - the senior Sinn Féin figure whose arrest in relation to the murder of Kevin McGuigan precipitated the political row - was released from police custody along with two others.

Mr Robinson's tactic, which has prevented an early move towards fresh elections, came after parties rejected a DUP proposal to adjourn the Assembly.

Apart from Ms Foster, there are no unionist ministers in the Stormont Executive while departments run by Sinn Féin, SDLP and Alliance Ministers can continue to function.

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers admitted the Executive had the potential for a very dysfunctional administration and underpinned the urgency for talks.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny also urged the parties to take all necessary steps to "get the assembly back on track".

He said the Irish Government is "willing and available" to support parties in the North "day and night" in the interest of "getting the Executive and the Assembly back on track".

Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan said he greatly regretted the DUP's decision.

"What we want is for the devolved power-sharing Executive and Assembly to work as envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement and deliver peace, prosperity and reconciliation for the people of Northern Ireland," he said.

The minister admitted that "the power-sharing institutions are on the edge of the precipice" and urged its political leaders to reflect carefully.

British Prime Minister David Cameron was also said to be "gravely concerned" about the situation at Stormont.

The DUP leader said technically he had not resigned but he would not be taking a salary as First Minister. However, the resignations of Simon Hamilton as Health Minister, Mervyn Storey as Social Development Minister and Jonathan Bell as Enterprise and Industry Minister - along with Junior Minister Michelle McIlveen - came with immediate effect.

Ms Villiers said she would not be suspending the devolved institutions, but admitted the DUP resignations would mean the functioning of the Executive became much more difficult.

"It is a sign of a complete breakdown in working relationships within the Executive," she added.

Sinn Féin's Gerry Adams welcomed the Assembly business committee decision to reject an adjournment adding it was "a very, very clear democratic reiteration of the integrity of these institutions".

SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell said his MLAs and MPs had 'unanimously' decided against the adjournment despite pressure from the Irish Government which put the party under pressure to support the DUP move as the "best way forward" or at least to abstain.

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said Mr Robinson was proposing "some sort of sticking plaster" when what was really needed is surgery. Meanwhile, Alliance leader David Ford accused the UUP and SDLP of betraying the past generations of their parties which helped forge the Good Friday Agreement.

Irish Independent

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