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Mike Nesbitt and Colum Eastwood think they're Batman and Robin. They are more like Laurel and Hardy

Blunders by the Opposition were instrumental in allowing Sinn Fein to pull Monday's headline-grabbing stunt

By Eilis O'Hanlon

This time last month, the truth behind the controversial Renewable Heating Initiative (RHI) was as clear as Fungus the Bogeyman's bath water.

Who was to blame? Who benefited? Whose heads should roll? Those questions remain unanswered.

This time last month, the First Minister was similarly refusing to stand aside pending an independent investigation into the so-called "cash for ash" scandal.

The lady still insists that she's not for turning.

So, what's changed since then? What one factor is so different as to lead to the current crisis, with the Assembly set to be wound up and new elections called?

The answer was evident to anyone who watched Monday evening's extended news broadcasts. What has changed is Martin McGuinness. And the change is dramatic.

The man who sat down at the Press conference to announce he was resigning as deputy First Minister and that Sinn Fein would not be nominating a successor looked years older than the one who stood in the lobby at Stormont just six days before Christmas to explain why he was not supporting Arlene Foster's statement.

Mystery still surrounds the exact nature of his health problems, because Sinn Fein appears to believe that this is Castro-era Cuba and that shadowy secrecy is the best way to handle matters of public concern; but whatever Arlene Foster did, or did not do, this is not a man who was going to be in office very much longer. His health was forcing him out - one way or another.

The only question to be decided was how his time as the most senior leader left in republican politics north of the border would come to an end.

Foster's temporary retirement would have allowed him to slip away with dignity, claiming that he'd put some manners on his DUP partners in government.

Once she refused to do so, he faced either a humiliating fudge that allowed her to stay on until an inquiry was complete - the very thing Sinn Fein had originally ruled out - or else to bring the whole edifice down, like Samson in the Bible, with the last expense of his strength.

Unsurprisingly, Sinn Fein chose the latter option, leaping on this unexpected opportunity to seize back the moral high ground, posing as the champions of the integrity of the Belfast Agreement - as if those whose actions have caused repeated collapses of the political process have any right to claim superiority over anyone.

In making it seem as if they really pulled the plug because the longed-for "equality" and "parity of esteem" had not been delivered, Sinn Fein has yanked the one rabbit out of the hat that might just stop the haemorrhaging of grassroots support from supporters who've started to see through the party's excuses for not delivering.

To claim that this had anything to do with austerity is even more laughable. Sinn Fein was fully prepared to stay in government if Arlene stepped aside. The theatrical handwringing over power-sharing is deeply cynical.

But they couldn't have pulled it off without help. Republicans were only able to give Martin McGuinness the big send-off that he needed because Opposition parties had prepared the ground by insisting that the First Minister's position was a make-or-break issue.

Apparently oblivious to his own role in this mess, Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt even had the cheek after McGuinness's announcement to accuse Sinn Fein of choosing "electoral advantages" over "the integrity of the institutions".

Say what? Is this the same Mike Nesbitt who said before Christmas that "the reputation of devolution has plummeted from the gutter to the sewer"?

What did he expect to happen when the stakes were raised this high?

What always happens in Northern Ireland when everyone is backed into a corner? They don't all sit down with nice cups of tea and talk it through. They dig their heels in and force a crisis - and it takes months of paralysis, sometimes years, to fix.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood was just as bullish before and after that Stormont debate of no confidence in Mrs Foster and now he, too, is complaining that an election will effectively let the DUP off the hook, by creating a two-month delay leading up to an election.

Well, of course it will. Is he only just realising this now? Because if he knew it all along, then it begs belief what else he was suggesting when he taunted the First Minister during the debate on that motion of no confidence that "Christmas will not save her".

The SDLP, UUP, Alliance and others did not have the numbers to force Arlene Foster from office. The only way Eastwood could have been proven right was if Sinn Fein itself did the dirty deed. He was effectively inviting them to do so.

Together, Colum and Mike seemed to think that they were Batman and Robin, fighting for justice, when in fact they were Laurel and Hardy, haplessly providing the cover Sinn Fein needed to give Martin McGuinness a rollicking finale to his time in office.

Eastwood tried to talk tough on Monday, accusing Sinn Fein of "joint responsibility" for the failures of devolution and mocking them for only now realising that the DUP has been "running rings round them in government".

He seems to forget that his own party has only been in Opposition since last May. They haven't been out of the loop long enough to pose as plucky outsiders, challenging the status quo.

Given time, they might have had the chance to grow into that role, but now they face an election before Easter and chances are it will be Sinn Fein running rings round them, as the republican party enjoys a little mini-break from Executive responsibility and plays, instead, at being the only ones who can stand up to the big, bad DUP.

The DUP, for its part, has started electioneering, too, portraying its own stubbornness as a last-ditch attempt to prevent republicans from dragging soldiers and policemen into the dock for Troubles-era killings.

We've seen this pantomime before; the script was written long ago; but the stage on which this latest performance is being shown was partly built by the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP.

If they thought they could become starring players on the back of it, they must already be realising that they're just extras again.

The French philosopher Voltaire said he only ever had one prayer - "'Lord, make my enemies ridiculous.' And God granted it."

The Shinners must surely be thinking that they have exactly the same luck.

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