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Peter Robinson steps aside: Northern Ireland devolution in turmoil as DUP ministers quit posts

All but one of DUP's ministers to resign after opposition parties reject proposal to adjourn the Northern Ireland Assembly

Published 10/09/2015

Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson has asked Arlene Foster to remain in post as Finance Minister
Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson has asked Arlene Foster to remain in post as Finance Minister

Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson has stepped down and the majority of his Executive ministers resigned amid a crisis sparked by a murder linked to the IRA.

Democratic Unionist Party leader Mr Robinson has asked current DUP finance minister Arlene Foster to remain in the Executive and take over as acting First Minister.

First Minister Peter Robinson at Stormont, Belfast, watched by Nigel Dodds, Johnathan Bell and Michelle Mcilveen, announces that he is standing aside
First Minister Peter Robinson at Stormont, Belfast, watched by Nigel Dodds, Johnathan Bell and Michelle Mcilveen, announces that he is standing aside

The mass walkout from the mandatory coalition came after the DUP failed to get the Assembly adjourned for a period to allow crisis talks to address the implications of the murder of Kevin McGuigan to take place.

The political furore over the killing intensified on Wednesday when three senior republicans, including Sinn Fein's northern chairman Bobby Storey, were arrested in connection with the murder of Kevin McGuigan. However, Mr Storey was released from custody without charge tonight.

As he announced the resignations, Mr Robinson repeated a demand for the Government to suspend the institutions outright to enable space for the talks to happen. Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers tonight rejected the call.

The fallout from the murder of Kevin McGuigan has already seen the Ulster Unionists resign their one ministerial post. The exit of Mr Robinson along with three of the DUP's four other ministers, and its one junior minister, has left the 13 minister administration in freefall. The departments of health and social care; social development; enterprise trade and investment; and regional development are now effectively rudderless.

Collapse of power-sharing is not inevitable but its demise appears to have been hastened by a day of dramatic developments at Stormont.

The DUP wanted all Assembly business suspended to allow crisis talks to take place about the political consequences of the murder of Mr McGuigan.

Read more

Kevin McGuigan murder: Bobby Storey and Eddie Copeland released unconditionally

Power-sharing in Northern Ireland stands on the brink after First Minister Peter Robinson stepped down
Power-sharing in Northern Ireland stands on the brink after First Minister Peter Robinson stepped down
The Stormont institutions are teetering on the brink amid a major political crisis

Stormont crisis: People waiting in the shadows to exploit a political vacuum, says Rev Harold Good  

Mr Robinson's announcement came after Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists voted against a DUP proposal to adjourn the Assembly.

He issued a resignation ultimatum on Wednesday after the arrest of republicans Mr Storey, Eddie Copeland and Brian Gillen over the fatal shooting of former IRA man Mr McGuigan. Mr Copeland and Mr Gillen remain in custody.

Police have said current members of the IRA were involved in last month's shooting of Mr McGuigan in a suspected revenge attack for the murder of former IRA commander Gerard "Jock" Davison in Belfast three months earlier.

The revelations about the IRA have heaped pressure on Sinn Fein to explain why the supposedly defunct paramilitary organisation is still in existence.

Mrs Foster, a Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA, is the current finance minister and she will also continue in that role.

Alliance Party leader David Ford and his party hold a press conference in the Great Hall at Stormont.
Photo: Pacemaker
Alliance Party leader David Ford and his party hold a press conference in the Great Hall at Stormont. Photo: Pacemaker

Mr Robinson said: "In light of the decision by republicans, nationalists and the UUP 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 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."

Ms Villiers said she would not be suspending the devolved institutions and called on the local parties to come together.

Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams speak to the press in the Great Hall at Parliament Buildings. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams speak to the press in the Great Hall at Parliament Buildings. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness (centre) speaking to the media at Stormont, Belfast. Wednesday August 9, 2015.
Conor Murphy says that there is "no logic or rationale" for suspending Stormont and confirmed that the party will be voting this afternoon to keep the institutions going. he is pictures at a party press conference at Storming this morning. Picture Matt Bohill Pacemaker.
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

She said 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 said.

Read more

Villiers warns over 'breakdown' of Executive working relations

Assembly was suspended four times in rows over IRA

Peter Robinson's statement in full

"As someone who invested many hours trying to bring devolution to Northern Ireland, and to maintain it, I have tried to create space to allow these critical unresolved matters to be dealt with in a structured manner.

"Local Ministers making local decisions is best for Northern Ireland.

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

"Yesterday I indicated that we would ask the Business Committee to adjourn Assembly proceedings to allow negotiations to take place.  That proposal did not find sufficient support.  The Government can still legislate to suspend the Assembly and allow space for the parties to negotiate.

"In light of the decision by republicans, nationalists and the UUP 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 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."

Downing Street reaction

A Downing Street spokesman said; "The Prime Minister is gravely concerned about the situation in Northern Ireland following developments there today.

"Earlier this afternoon, the Prime Minister spoke with Peter Robinson. While acknowledging the gravity of the situation, the Prime Minister told Mr Robinson that the UK Government did not believe it would be right to introduce emergency legislation now to suspend the Assembly.

"They discussed options for what more the UK Government could do to comprehensively address all remaining paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland.

"The PM underlined the need for intensive cross-party talks to identify ways to tackle all paramilitary groups and to get on with implementation of the Stormont House Agreement

"The Prime Minister said that there should be a return to the spirit that had seen politicians show such leadership over the years to deliver a peace process that has inspired people across the world.

"The Government objective is clear: we want to work with political leaders for a Northern Ireland where politics works, the economy grows and which is no longer defined by its divided past but by its shared future."

US reaction

The US administration urged Northern Ireland's leaders to resolve the outstanding problems.

Secretary of State John Kerry's envoy to Northern Ireland, former senator Gary Hart said: "The United States Government strongly supports the cross-party talks led by the UK and Irish governments.

"We again encourage all of Northern Ireland's political parties to engage constructively in these negotiations in order to strengthen the devolved institutions.

"Northern Ireland's achievements are the result of dialogue and responsible leadership; now is the time to re-energise the parties' commitment to implementing the Stormont House Agreement and addressing remnant paramilitary activity.

"The United States remains actively engaged and will continue to support political progress."

UUP

Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt said: "Peter Robinson clearly cannot make a decision as to whether he wants be in or out of the Executive. On Wednesday he said the DUP Ministers would leave the Executive en masse, yet only 24 hours later his position has shifted to only some of his Ministers resigning. In fact he has not even resigned himself, opting to use the idiosyncrasy of standing aside. Few people will see this as anything but a smokescreen.

"This is incredibly weak leadership. Instead of the focus remaining firmly on Sinn Fein, people are now trying to determine exactly what this latest example of DUP manoeuvring actually means. 

"Given the financial shambles that the DUP and Sinn Fein have presided over, and which has continued at pace under Arlene Foster, it is obvious that she has only been appointed as presiding First Minister for no other reason than to allow the DUP to cling on to the reins of power.

"If Peter Robinson was so concerned about the actions of the remaining Sinn Fein Ministers he should have resigned. Under the Northern Ireland Act if either one of the joint First Ministers resign, the other automatically ceases to hold office.”

Alliance Party

Alliance leader David Ford criticised other parties for "grand-standing instead of helping reach a solution" over the current Stormont crisis.

Mr Ford said: "It is a deeply disappointing day for everyone in Northern Ireland and a worrying one as regards the future of the political institutions here, thanks to the actions of the UUP and SDLP," he said.

"These are two parties whose former leaders sacrificed their parties for the peace process. Now their current leaders have sacrificed the process for party interest.

"Those concerns have been exacerbated by the DUP's actions this evening. While their commitment to talks is welcome, their Ministers' resignations leave the Executive hanging by a thread.

"Devolution is an integral part of reconciliation but for it to function, people need to step back and calm down. Alliance has consistently said cool heads and strong leadership is needed, which is what we are providing. However, today's events show others are not as interested and would rather grandstand and threaten power-sharing for short-term gain."

Sinn Fein

Speaking prior to Peter Robinson's announcement that he would be stepping aside Sinn Fein Deputy Leader Mary Lou McDonald said: "What we are witnessing is a crisis within the unionist parties that is threatening the institutions.  The two unionist parties are playing a game of bluff with the institutions arising for the agreements. These are the people’s agreements and institutions voted for by the vast majority of people across Ireland.

"Sinn Fein is opposed to any adjournment or suspension. Anyone promoting the idea to save the institutions by closing them down is deluded.

"Closing the institutions will not resolve the outstanding issues, will not benefit the talks process, and will only harm all in the community and undermine public services.

"What is required is for unionist parties to set aside their petty political rivalries and demonstrate leadership.

"Now is the time to assert the primacy of politics and democracy to maintain functioning institutions with a workable budget, delivering for all our people.

"Alongside of that, we need leadership at the talks process to resolve all of the outstanding issues.

"The two governments and all the parties should abide by the agreements and maintain functioning institutions."

SDLP

Speaking prior to Peter Robinson's announcement that he would be stepping aside the SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell said: "Unlike others who rushed to judgement, we have been steady and spoken to everyone, including the Irish Government, this morning about the current situation. Our decision has been to oppose the adjournment of the Assembly. It offers no real solution.

"In our meeting with the Taoiseach we offered a number of constructive proposals including the introduction of a representative of the American Government as a new independent chair, allowing space for a comprehensive resolution involving everyone.

"This crisis has been created by the failings of Sinn Féin and the DUP. Together they have damaged confidence, the institutions, good government and the fundamental values of the Good Friday Agreement.

"The SDLP are not in the business of giving cover for or working to DUP or Sinn Fein agendas. We are in the business of defending and delivering upon the promise of the Good Friday Agreement and ensuring that these institutions work for the good of our people. We will continue to stand up for these institutions. It is disgraceful that others would seek to jeopardise them. But that is their decision and they must be held responsible for it.

"We will not cross the wires of politics and policing as the DUP have done upon recent arrests. We feel the Assembly can and should do business while the talks take place and should not be put at risk by political brinkmanship. You cannot stabilise the institutions by bringing them down.

"All too often we in Stormont are accused of living in a bubble. People are sick of the Assembly lurching from one crisis to the other. They should be. We are.

"We need to be responsible and we will be."

Kevin McGuigan murder: Bobby Storey, Eddie Copeland and Brian Gillen released unconditionally

The PSNI said that senior republican Bobby Storey, who was arrested Wednesday morning in connection with the murder of former IRA man Kevin McGuigan Sr, has been released.

Mr Storey is northern chairman of Sinn Fein and was one of three well-known republicans detained on Wednesday in connection with the fatal shooting of mr McGuigan in Belfast last month which has brought the power-sharing institutions in Northern Ireland to the brink of collapse.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams welcomed Mr Storey's release.

"The unconditional release of Bobby Storey underlines the contrived nature of the current crisis in the political institutions in the North," he said.

"I want to reiterate my grave concern about the nature in which the murder of two men has been exploited and also at the way the current difficulties have developed in the last few weeks, including the arrest of Bobby Storey."

Two other prominent republicans, Brian Gillen and Eddie Copeland, were also released unconditionally on Thursday.

A 50-year-old woman arrested in Belfast on Thursday remains in custody.

Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said Mr Storey was a key advocate of peace.

Mr McGuinness tweeted ahead of Mr Storey’s release, saying that he had "confidently predicted" the release.

Mr Storey's lawyer John Finucane also tweeted, saying his client would be suing for “unlawful arrest”.

Mr McGuigan, a 53-year-old father-of-nine, was gunned down outside his home at Comber Court in the Short Strand area of east Belfast last month.

He was suspected by some in the republican movement of involvement in the Davison murder.

Although detectives said individual IRA members were involved in the shooting, they have said there is no evidence to suggest it was sanctioned at a senior level.

Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Chief Constable George Hamilton has also said the IRA is not engaged in terrorism but instead is pursuing a peaceful, political republican agenda.

Key questions

Here are some key questions and answers about the political crisis.

Why did Mr Robinson step down?

Police have linked the murder of Kevin McGuigan in Belfast last month to members of the IRA engaged in personal criminality. But the revelation that the organisation still exists and individuals associated with it engaged in murder has shocked unionists.

Sinn Fein contains many former members of the IRA and unionists have questioned their credibility in government at Stormont while they claim more questions remain to be answered by republicans.

The row intensified earlier this week after a senior Sinn Fein member was arrested, although later released, as part of the inquiry into Mr McGuigan's death.

Mr Robinson has said he wanted to have Sinn Fein excluded from government but was unable to gain enough support from other parties.

On Thursday the assembly business committee which represents the five largest parties voted against another of his proposals, adjournment of the devolved legislature, leaving Mr Robinson and his party to decide whether to continue to operate the institutions.

What happens now?

The east Belfast-based party leader wants to focus on intensive talks called by the British and Irish governments which aim to address any lingering paramilitarism a decade after the IRA was thought to have disbanded.

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers has said they will be intensive and signalled they are not intended to last long. Some political leaders have put the timeframe at about four weeks.

What are the parties talking about?

Concerns about loyalist and republican paramilitarism and the possibility of establishing an independent body to monitor the ceasefires similar to that which existed until 2011.

Budgetary matters which had already brought the powersharing Executive to the verge of financial ruin. Sinn Fein opposes welfare changes which it says will hurt the most vulnerable but the British Government believes will encourage people back to work. As a result of the stalemate the administration is paying "fines" imposed on the amount the British Government pays Stormont to run public services in Northern Ireland, leaving a £600 million black hole in the budget and the prospect of running out of money later this autumn.

Other issues outstanding from last year's unimplemented Stormont House Agreement, which pledged a range of bodies to investigate the legacy of thousands of Troubles killings and a number of other measures.

What happens to powersharing?

The departments of health and social care; social development; enterprise trade and investment; and regional development are now effectively rudderless after the Ulster Unionist and Democratic Unionist resignations.

Mr Robinson appointed Arlene Foster acting First Minister, avoiding automatic collapse of the institutions and ensuring republicans cannot take decisions detrimental to Northern Ireland. But his promise that it would not be business as usual while issues of paramilitarism were addressed appears to have been fulfilled.

Earlier this week, Mr Robinson also called an end to meetings of Stormont Executive, because it must be convened jointly by him and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, and said there would be no formal meetings between Northern Ireland ministers and their counterparts from the Irish Republic.

The DUP has asked the Prime Minister to take the power to suspend the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers could pass emergency legislation at Westminster allowing her to suspend the Assembly but has refused to do so.

What does it mean for ordinary people in Northern Ireland?

Businesses had hoped power to set corporation tax would be devolved, enabling the region to compete more effectively with the Republic of Ireland's lower rate. That has been endangered by the political wrangling.

A government package representing additional spending power of almost £2 billion, much of it borrowing, has not been released but money has been made available for a voluntary redundancy scheme for the civil service.

Timeline of events

Here is a timeline of significant events over the past five months.

  • May 5 - Mr Davison, 47, is shot dead at Welsh Street in the Markets area of Belfast. The senior republican backed Sinn Fein's peace process strategy following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and was employed as a community development worker in his local neighbourhood. He was linked to the 2005 fight which led to the death of father of three Robert McCartney in one of Northern Ireland's most notorious killings, but was never charged. His uncle, Terrence Davison, was later acquitted of the murder.
     
  • May 9 - Funeral for Mr Davison is attended by a number of high profile republicans, including Bobby Storey, Eddie Copeland and Brian Gillen. His coffin is draped in an Irish tricolour with a beret and gloves placed on top.
     
  • May 12 - The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) say murder investigation is "challenging", but rule out dissident republican or loyalist paramilitary involvement.
     
  • May 26 - Police reveal an unusual Eastern European weapon was used in the shooting.
     
  • August 12 - Former IRA man Kevin McGuigan, 53, gunned down close to his home at Comber Court in the Short Strand area of east Belfast. Mr McGuigan and Mr Davison had been embroiled in a long-running personal feud and he had been suspected by many within the republican community of involvement in May's murder. There is widespread speculation that Mr McGuigan was killed in a revenge attack carried out by Mr Davison's IRA associates.
     
  • August 13 - Stormont's First Minister and Democratic Unionist leader 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 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, 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 they 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 says the IRA still exists, but is not on a "war footing". Following crunch talks with political figures at PSNI headquarters, Mr Hamilton says IRA are committed to "promoting peaceful political republicanism". The police chief says he accepts Sinn Fein's bona fides.
     
  • August 23 - Mr Adams tells National Hunger Strike commemoration in Dundalk the IRA "has gone away".
     
  • August 24 - Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers says she is "not surprised" by police assessment that the IRA still exists, but says there is no evidence it is involved in terrorism.
     
  • August 25 - Ireland's Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald orders a fresh assessment of Provisional IRA activity.
     
  • August 26 - The Ulster Unionist Party - a minor partner in the Stormont coalition - announces its intention to resign from the Executive, claiming trust in Sinn Fein had been destroyed. Ireland's police chief, Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan, insists the force had never denied the IRA still exists.
     
  • August 27 - The DUP claims evidence of IRA activity is of sufficient strength to expel Sinn Fein from the Executive.
     
  • August 29 - The UUP's ruling executive endorses Mr Nesbitt's recommendation to withdraw from the Stormont Executive.
     
  • September 1 - DUP leader Mr Robinson meets Prime Minister David Cameron to discuss the crisis. The First Minister calls for a new monitoring body to be established to independently assess IRA activity. The UUP's sole Executive minister - Danny Kennedy - formally resigns.
     
  • September 3 - Mr Cameron and Irish 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 says it will only take part in discussions that focus on the IRA.
     
  • September 9 - Senior republicans Mr Copeland, Mr Gillen and Mr Storey, who is Sinn Fein's northern chairman, are arrested in connection with the murder of Mr McGuigan. They bring to 16 the number arrested over the murder. Fitzpatrick remains the only person charged with any offence. In response to the latest arrests, the DUP threatens to resign from the Executive if the Assembly is not adjourned or suspended until the crisis is resolved. Prime Minister David Cameron appeals to Northern Ireland's political leaders to work together as they did during the peace process.
     
  • September 10 - Parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly vote to reject a Democratic Unionist Party proposal to adjourn the power-sharing institutions. Stormont First Minister and Democratic Unionist leader Peter Robinson announces he is to step aside and that party colleague Arlene Foster is to take over as temporary First Minister.
     
  • September 10 - Sinn Fein's northern chairman Bobby Storey is released by detectives investigating the murder of Kevin McGuigan Snr. Two other prominent republicans, Eddie Copeland and Brian Gillen were also released unconditionally.

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