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Rise of Opposition could spell the end for Stormont's Old Firm

It's a bit two-faced of Sinn Fein to call on the First Minister to stand aside given party's history of undermining and threatening the institutions, says Henry McDonald

Cash for ash and the scandal swirling around it still undoubtedly threatens to dethrone Arlene Foster, precipitating a fresh election that no one probably wants.

It has raised understandable public concern about alleged cronyism, corruption and incompetence that goes to the heart of the Stormont administration.

And it has further undermined the people's confidence in the devolved institutions, which have taken decades to reconstruct and bed down.

Still-in-government Sinn Fein has joined the chorus of Opposition parties calling for First Minister Foster to stand down while an independent inquiry is held into the RHI scheme.

Yet the party's own behaviour regarding the allegations over the bungled green energy scheme have been equally bewildering and two-faced.

The bewilderment concerns its attitude to the SDLP motion of no confidence, that fell over lack of cross-community support connected to the complex rules of power-sharing.

Over the last 48 hours Sinn Fein has been briefing newsrooms across Ireland and Britain that, no matter what it would have done during that vote, the DUP would still have vetoed the proposal and saved Foster's skin.

This logic is pure sophistry, however, because - at the very least - Sinn Fein could have easily joined all the other parties in attempting to censure the First Minister.

Moreover, it would have been highly unlikely, in the event of supporting the no confidence motion, that the DUP and Sinn Fein could have remained as coalition partners.

The party accused the SDLP, Ulster Unionists, Greens, People Before Profit, Alliance and TUV leader Jim Allister of attempting to "headbutt" Foster.

Yet, while Sinn Fein wasn't joining in a full-frontal assault, the party was still prepared to kick her in the shins with its insistence that she stand down and its warnings on Tuesday about the supposed inevitability of an election.

Maybe it is just playing for time and preparing its electorate for going back to the polls early in the new year, but Sinn Fein cannot, surely, escape the second charge levelled against it: being two-faced.

How many times, after all, have the devolved institutions been undermined or threatened by the behaviour of the republican party and leading figures within it?

The list of crisis scenarios Sinn Fein has been responsible for is a fairly long one, stretching from 'Stormontgate' and the spy ring all the way to Gerry Adams's arrest over the Jean McConville murder.

The party threatened to pull down the house of devolution when its 'Dear Leader' was taken into custody and questioned over the kidnapping, killing and secret burial of the widow in 1972 (Adams wasn't charged).

None of the above is to suggest that the DUP should be let off the hook, or suggest that the parties holding it to account should simply shut up over the RHI farce.

It was heartening for local democracy to see everyone from Eamonn McCann on the Left to Jim Allister on the unionist Right uniting in a common cause to censure the First Minister.

Such unity of purpose is encouraging, and perhaps we are seeing the emergence of a prototype-alternative government one day, comprising in the main of the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP, with support from the likes of the Greens, or even People Before Profit.

That depends, ultimately, on electoral arithmetic and, given the zero-sum game of Northern Ireland politics, you would not bet the farm (even one powered by RHI) against the DUP and Sinn Fein once more coming out as top dogs at the ballot box.

The communal fear factor, the collective worry that, if you don't vote for "our ones" then "themuns" will be in charge instead, is a powerful psychological driving-force in the minds of voters.

The phenomenon is very like that old Cold War doctrine of MAD - Mutually Assured Destruction - in which both the USA and USSR avoided a world war because they knew their mutual nuclear arsenals would destroy each other (as well as the entire world).

Instead, the Americans and the Soviets pin-pricked each other all over the planet in mini-wars and conflict, ranging from Vietnam and Korea, to Afghanistan and Nicaragua.

A fresh election - which, again, probably nobody really wants, either up at Stormont, or in wider society - will in all likelihood end up with the DUP and Sinn Fein again the two largest parties.

Nonetheless, the emergence of an Opposition acting in concert, piling the pressure on the Executive and scrutinising its policy decision-making is not only welcome in terms of ending the old post-ceasefire/post-Good Friday Agreement "we-are-all-in-this-together" mandatory coalition politics, it also gives the electorate a vision of an alternative government to the Big Two.

Since devolution was restored after the St Andrews Agreement Ulster politics - up until this year - has been as binary and boring as the Scottish Premiership used to be: Celtic and Rangers; Rangers and Celtic. These days Scottish football is even more tedious (given Celtic's monopoly control over the league title and most trophies).

In the Assembly, what we saw on Monday was the political equivalent of Aberdeen, Hearts, or Ross County (go Liam Boyce) starting to seriously challenge the one-time Old Firm duopoly, now East End of Glasgow monopoly.

It might be a very long time before the likes of the Dons or the Jambos threaten the Parkhead club's grip on the Premiership.

Yet, when it comes to politics, Monday's no confidence vote­ - and the sight of the Opposition parties mounting a serious challenge to our own Big Two - means we are starting to live again in interesting times.

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