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Stormont thrown into turmoil after Robinson steps aside as First Minister

Devolution in turmoil after DUP ministers quit posts

By Noel McAdam

Published 11/09/2015

First Minister Peter Robinson announces the DUP resignations at Stormont
First Minister Peter Robinson announces the DUP resignations at Stormont
Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams address the media at Stormont yesterday
Theresa Villiers
Peter Robinson after announcing he was to step aside as First Minister
First Minister Peter Robinson at Stormont, Belfast, watched by Nigel Dodds, Johnathan Bell and Michelle Mcilveen, announces that he is standing aside, and the majority of his Democratic Unionist ministers are to resign, with party colleague Arlene Foster to take over as acting First Minister. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday September 10, 2015. The surprise move from the DUP leader comes amid an Assembly crisis in the wake of a murder linked to the IRA murder. See PA story ULSTER Politics. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire
PACEMAKER BELFAST 10/09/2015 Alliance Party leader David Ford and his party hold a press conference in the Great Hall at Stormont this afternoon. PHOTO MATT BOHILL/PACEMAKER PRESS
Sinn Fein's John O'Dowd (left) and Conor Murphy make their way past a portrait of former First Minister Ian Paisley,in Parliament Buildings at Stormont, on their way to the Great Hall to speak to the press ahead of today's meetings to decided the future of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
10th September 2015 Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy(centre) along with party colleagues speak to the press in the Great Hall in Parliament Buildings at Stormont ahead of today's meetings to decided the future of the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is to be decided today whether the Assembly will be suspended. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

Stormont has moved closer to the political abyss as DUP ministers dramatically resigned over Sinn Fein 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.

And he said Mrs Foster would also stay on as Finance Minister as a "gatekeeper" to ensure Sinn Fein and SDLP ministers cannot make decisions "detrimental to Northern Ireland".

His tactic prevented an early move towards fresh Assembly elections and bought time for the Government to attempt to inject further momentum into the inter-party talks.

But apart from Mrs Foster, there are no unionist ministers in the Stormont Executive while departments run by Sinn Fein, SDLP and Alliance ministers can continue to function.

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers admitted the Executive had the potential for a very dysfunctional administration, but underpinned the urgency for talks which would also resolve the stalemate over welfare reform.

Mr Robinson's strategy emerged after he failed to persuade the Stormont's business committee to adjourn the Assembly or get Mrs Villiers to agree to suspend the institutions.

Yet as tension between the Executive parties escalated, Bobby Storey - the senior Sinn Fein figure whose arrest in relation to the murder of Kevin McGuigan precipitated the political row - was released from police custody.

Mr Robinson argued: "The failure of the SDLP and Sinn Fein to implement the Stormont House Agreement, together with the assessment of the Chief Constable of the involvement of the IRA in murder, the continued existence of IRA structures and the arrests that followed has pushed devolution to the brink.

"In light of the decision by republicans, nationalists and the Ulster Unionist Party to continue with business as usual in the Assembly, I am therefore standing aside as First Minister and other DUP ministers will resign with immediate effect with the exception of my colleague Arlene Foster.

"I have asked Arlene to remain in post as Finance Minister and Acting First Minister to ensure that nationalists and republicans are not able to take financial and other decisions that may be detrimental to Northern Ireland."

The DUP leader said technically he had not resigned but he would not be taking a salary as First Minister.

But 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.

After the Ulster Unionists' sole minister, Danny Kennedy, resigned as Regional Development Minister last week, it leaves civil servants in charge at four key departments and no Executive meetings taking place.

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said Mr Robinson was proposing "some sort of sticking plaster" when what was really needed was surgery.

"If the DUP were serious about holding Sinn Fein to account over the criminal activity of the IRA, why didn't they join us in our request to put terrorism and the credibility of Sinn Fein's reaction to recent events at the top of the talks agenda," he asked.

Sinn Fein has insisted the IRA has gone away and has accused both unionist parties of ramping up the crisis for electoral gain.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said: "The decision of the business committee is a very, very clear democratic reiteration of the integrity of these institutions and of the need and the wish for these institutions to continue the work which we were all elected to do on behalf of citizens in this state and across this island."

Alliance leader David Ford added that it had often been said that former UUP leader Lord Trimble and ex-SDLP leader John Hume had sacrificed their parties for the sake of the peace process - but in opposing adjournment the current leadership had again sacrificed their parties "and for what?"

Mr Nesbitt said Mr Ford did not realise that he had the complete support of Lord Trimble who endorsed the actions he had taken. Though it was delayed to allow a SDLP delegation to return from Dublin, the eventual meeting of the business committee lasted all of four minutes.

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.

WHAT THEY SAID

First Minister  Peter Robinson, DUP leader

"In light of the decision by republicans, nationalists and the UUP to continue with business as usual in the Assembly, I am standing aside as First Minister and other DUP ministers will resign with immediate effect with the exception of Arlene Foster.

"I have asked Arlene to remain in post as Finance Minister and acting First Minister to ensure that nationalists and republicans are not able to take financial and other decisions that may be detrimental to Northern Ireland."

Theresa Villiers, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

"This is a bad day for the Northern Ireland political process. There have been a number of such bad days over the 20 years since the leadership of NI undertook this great process which led to the Good Friday Agreement. In all of those situations, the solution was found through the leaders of Northern Ireland sitting round a table to try and resolve the issues. That is what we have to do in the days and weeks to come."

Alastair McDonnell, SDLP leader

"We are in the business of supporting the agreement that was made in 1998, and the institutions here that grow from it.

"We will not cross the wires of the political process and policing, and that is what the DUP have been doing. Policing and the legal processes should be allowed to take their course."

Mike Nesbitt, UUP leader

"This Executive is broken. Peter Robinson was proposing some sort of sticking plaster. What we really need is surgery.

"We remain committed to our vision of a properly peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland. We have bold and imaginative proposals for delivering that vision and we will input our thoughts into what will inevitably be a round of intensive negotiations."

Gerry Adams, SF President

"We need real talks, not pretend talks, not play-acting, not stunts and grandstanding. I hope both governments support the integrity of these institutions and make it clear they will not suspend the institutions."

David Ford, Alliance

"The reality is we are going to have to have talks - it would be better if they happened in the next weeks than in five years' time."

"It's often been said that Trimble and Hume sacrificed their parties for the sake of the peace process. Today the current leadership of the UUP and SDLP have sacrificed the process, for what?"

Jim Allister, TUV leader

"It is time to sweep away the debris of failure at Stormont and to re-engage with the democratic norms where the electorate have the right to remove a party from government and an opposition to hold the Executive to account."

Countdown to meltdown

August 12: Ex-IRA man Kevin McGuigan (53) is murdered in front of his wife Geraldine as he returns to his home in the Short Strand area of east Belfast. There is widespread speculation that Mr McGuigan was killed in a revenge attack carried out by Gerard ‘Jock’ Davison’s IRA associates.

August 13: First Minister Peter Robinson warns Sinn Fein it would face expulsion from the power-sharing Executive if the IRA was responsible for shooting Mr McGuigan. Sinn Fein vehemently rejects the suggestion of IRA involvement.

August 18: Four men, including IRA Shankill bomber Sean Kelly, are arrested by detectives investigating the killing of Mr McGuigan.

August 18: Mourners at the funeral service for Mr McGuigan are told violence and revenge do not solve problems. Former Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Belfast Niall O Donnghaile, who is from the Short Strand district, is the only notable political figure in attendance.

August 20: PSNI Detective Superintendent Kevin Geddes says he believes Provisional IRA members were involved in the murder of Mr McGuigan alongside Action Against Drugs (AAD) — a group that includes former IRA members, dissident republicans and criminals. Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams rejects allegations of IRA involvement in the shooting and insists it left the stage in 2005. Mr Robinson reiterates his warning of Sinn Fein expulsion. One of the arrested men — Patrick John Fitzpatrick (53) from the Lagmore area of Belfast — appears in court charged with possession of a weapon with intent to endanger life. The others detained were released.

August 22: PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton confirms the Provisional IRA still exists, and that some of its members were involved in the murder of Mr McGuigan. Following crunch talks with political figures at PSNI headquarters, Mr Hamilton says the IRA is committed to “promoting peaceful political republicanism”. The police chief says he accepts Sinn Fein’s bona fides.

August 22: Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams responded saying he did not accept Mr Hamilton’s comments, adding that the IRA has “gone and [is] not coming back”. First Minister Peter Robinson said he would have discussions with other Northern Ireland parties “about tabling the necessary exclusion motion in the Assembly and asking the Secretary of State to intervene in circumstances where the evidence points to the IRA being involved”.

August 23: Mr Adams tells a hunger strike commemoration in Dundalk the IRA “has gone away”.

August 24: Secretary of State Theresa Villiers says she is “not surprised” by the police assessment that the IRA still exists, but says there is no evidence it is involved in terrorism.

August 25: Irish Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald orders a fresh assessment of Provisional IRA activity.

August 26: Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt announces his party’s intention to withdraw from the Executive.

August 27: The DUP claims evidence of IRA activity is of sufficient strength to expel Sinn Fein from the Executive.

August 29: Ulster Unionist Party Executive approves leader’s decision for its only minister Danny Kennedy to resign

September 1: DUP delegation including Peter Robinson, Nigel Dodds and Arlene Foster meet Prime Minister David Cameron at Downing Street after a motion to have the Assembly adjourned for four weeks was rejected. All-party talks suggested to take place to solve the crisis.

September 1: Danny Kennedy resigns from his post as Regional Development Minister, leaving the UUP seven days to nominate a replacement or the position would pass to the DUP to nominate for.

September 3: Mr Cameron and Taoiseach Enda Kenny order new talks in a bid to resolve the McGuigan murder crisis and other disputes destabilising Stormont, such as the impasse on the implementation of welfare reforms. PSNI chief Mr Hamilton said he would support any new paramilitary monitoring body.

September 4: The US administration urges Northern Ireland politicians to seize the opportunity presented by the new talks.

September 7: As the Assembly returns from its summer recess, Mr Robinson says he will prevent any meetings of the Executive happening until the situation is addressed.

September 8: Ms Villiers convenes the cross-party negotiations but the UUP walks out because the IRA is not on the agenda for discussion

September 9: Former top IRA figures Bobby Storey, Brian Gillen and Eddie Copeland are arrested in connection with the murder of Mr McGuigan before being released without charge. They bring to 16 the number arrested over the murder. The DUP threatens to resign from the Executive if the Assembly is not adjourned or suspended.

September 10: A 50-year-old woman is arrested by police investigating the murder of Mr McGuigan.

September 10: Stormont Business committee votes down DUP motion to suspend Assembly.

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