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RHI: Choreography may yet offer face-saving way out of early election in Northern Ireland

By Suzanne Breen

For anyone who hasn't closely followed the torturous trail of politics here in recent years, Stormont's plunge into catastrophe may seem inevitable.

Sinn Fein says that, if Arlene doesn't step aside, it will collapse the Executive and force a snap election. The DUP is adamant that she's going nowhere.

If one party doesn't budge, they will take the whole shebang over the cliff into the electoral unknown.

But this is Northern Ireland, where politicians, governments, and civil servants are masters at concocting a fudge, despite apparently irreconcilable positions.

For all the tough talk from both the DUP and Sinn Fein, does either truly want an election?

Imagine Arlene on the campaign trail across the country. The party faithful will rally around her but she will also be exposed to extensive abuse on 'cash for ash'. Those pink love glasses will be required day and daily to block out the bad feeling.

DUP delegates' rousing rendition of 'Arlene's On Fire' at the close of their party conference just two months ago will undoubtedly feature in their rivals' election broadcasts. And Jim Allister, Mike Nesbitt and Naomi Long will line up to land blows on her in TV debates.

Even with a bounce for its rivals, the DUP should still emerge as top dog unless there is a tidal wave of public revolt. But Arlene will be further bruised in the process and her reputation diminished.

Sinn Fein has less to lose in an election, although it is rightly worried about the growing challenge from People Before Profit. But is it really in the Shinners' DNA to pull down the institutions?

Despite having spent decades trying to smash Stormont, since 1998 they have bent over backwards to protect it - even to the point of being humiliated by the DUP.

The bones of a compromise are visible. On Friday night, Sinn Fein announced that it is seeking the resignation of Assembly Speaker, Robin Newton.

In his speech on Saturday, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams referred to the lack of progress on a Bill of Rights and the £50,000 cut to the Liofa Irish language bursaries.

The Speaker's head on a plate, along with a few minor sweeteners from the DUP, might just secure a Sinn Fein climbdown.

On Arlene Foster's resignation, there is room for manoeuvre. Given his ill health, Martin McGuinness may well be about to resign as deputy First Minister anyway.

If Sinn Fein takes the six weeks that the legislation allows it to nominate a replacement, the joint nature of the office means that Mrs Foster is automatically resigned for that period as well.

Sinn Fein's current demand is that she step aside only for four weeks to allow a preliminary investigatory report into 'cash for ash'.

Sources told the Belfast Telegraph that under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, even when the First and deputy First Ministers resign, they still retain the power to exercise the functions of their office until they are replaced.

They are likely to be able to continue to occupy Stormont Castle and retain their team of special advisers.

While Conor Murphy remains the front-runner to replace Martin McGuinness, Health Minister Michelle O'Neill shouldn't be ruled out.

Murphy is a safe but inspiring choice. With Sinn Fein desperately needing to enliven its image to reconnect with its grassroots, O'Neill's youth, gender, and energy holds strong appeal.

The 'cash for ash' scandal has taken many twists and turns, and predicting the next stage in the saga is impossible.

Sinn Fein's history at Stormont has been to huff and puff but not to blow the house down. If the Shinners were really serious about establishing the truth on the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, it is illogical for them to refuse to support a public inquiry.

A strong, uncompromising stance this week would be hugely popular with nationalist grassroots and finally prove that the DUP didn't have its measure.

Until now, the party has been unwilling to walk from its loveless marriage with the Duppers.

And behind the scenes, the two governments and others are working flat out to try to keep life in the failing, dysfunctional relationship.

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