In Depth

Northern Ireland crisis: what's happening at Stormont?

Peter Robinson's decision to stand down could trigger the reimposition of direct rule from Westminster

Northern Ireland's First Minister has stood down, plunging the country's devolved power-sharing government into crisis.

Peter Robinson made the announcement after failing to receive backing in his bid to suspend the assembly over allegations that the IRA is still active and was behind a recent murder in Belfast.

"The continued existence of the IRA and the arrests that followed has pushed devolution to the brink," Robinson said as he stood down.

"The fact that a leading member of Sinn Fein has been associated with a murder indicates to us very clearly that those are unacceptable circumstances and we cannot do business as usual."

What happened?

The current political crisis was sparked by the murder of former IRA gunman Kevin McGuigan, apparently as a result of a feud among former members of the group. He was shot dead at his home in Belfast last month and police believe members of the provisional IRA were involved, with the killing sanctioned by senior figures within the organisation. This triggered a decision by the Ulster Unionist party to withdraw its MP from the power-sharing coalition last week.

Several arrests have been made, including Sinn Fein's northern chairman Bobby Storey and well-known republicans Eddie Copeland and Brian Gillen, pushing Stormont into deeper crisis. Storey is a close ally of Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams who has since said he has "grave concerns" about the circumstances of his arrest, the BBC reports.  The men have since been released and Storey's lawyer said he plans to sue for unlawful arrest. The argument between republican and unionist parties now centres on claims that the IRA continues to operate – an allegation Sinn Fein strongly denies. "The war is over," Adams said in a statement. "The IRA is gone and not coming back."

What is happening now?

Robinson and all but one of his Democratic Unionist ministers have stepped aside, leaving Arlene Foster to serve as acting First Minister. "His decision means there will be no early election, and potentially buys time for a resolution," says the Financial Times. Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers has so far resisted calls to suspend the assembly and is appealing to all parties to come together and settle their differences. Meanwhile in Westminster, David Cameron has said he is "gravely concerned" about the situation in Belfast, but will not introduce emergency legislation to suspend the devolved institutions.

What will happen next?

Talks aimed at averting the collapse of the regional government, chaired by representatives from Britain and Ireland, will continue on Monday. "These discussions might find mechanisms that will rebuild unionist faith in the process," says The Guardian. "The problem is unionists only want to discuss the issue of the IRA's alleged continued existence." 

If the assembly is suspended, it could trigger the reimposition of direct rule from Westminster, a move that would be "strongly resisted" by Northern Ireland's nationalist parties and by the government in Dublin, says the Financial Times. Robinson has warned that if devolution collapses, it could take up to a decade for a stable power-sharing government to return to Northern Ireland.

Few are predicting a return to the armed conflict of the so-called Troubles, says Reuters. However, Sinn Fein's Martin McGuiness has warned a stalemate would "create a vacuum that would be exploited by violent elements on all sides". 

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