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Martin McGuinness resigns: What you need to know

An election looms in Northern Ireland as the deputy first minister quits over the Arlene Foster row.

Martin McGuinness, the deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and peace process veteran, has resigned over the scandal engulfing Arlene Foster, the unionist First Minister.

McGuinness, who was Sinn Féin's chief negotiator in the Northern Ireland peace process, said in a letter to the Northern Ireland Assembly speaker that Foster's position "is not credible or tenable". 

He also demanded an election so that voters could "make their own judgement" on the political parties. 

Foster, from the Democratic Unionist Party, is implicated in the "cash for ash" affair, a badly-handled renewables project where public money appears to have been squandered.

McGuinness wrote that "over ten difficult and testing years" he had tried to make the power-sharing government work, but that Foster had refused to stand aside over the scandal.

He continued: "It is with deep regret and reluctance, that I am tendering my resignation as deputy First Minister with effect from 5pm on Monday, 9th January, 2017."

Sinn Féin will not be tendering another candidate for the role, which will put pressure on the government to hold an election, or place the basis of the power-sharing agreement in jeopardy.

So what does this mean for the stability of Northern Irish politics? Here are a couple of things to take into account:

"Cash for ash" is a public money scandal

Although there's nothing good about a botched energy scheme that may have cost taxpayers nearly £500m, "cash for ash" is at least fairly tame by Northern Irish standards, being a scandal that is about taxpayers, rather than sectarian violence.

The Renewable Heat Incentive scheme was designed to encourage more renewable energy use. However, a whistleblower claimed the scheme was a waste of money, with farmers being paid to heat empty sheds.

The minister in charge of the scheme was Arlene Foster, who became First Minister in January 2016. She has so far refused to resign, and has claimed that the criticism of her is misogynistic.

Some already expected Martin McGuinness to step down

McGuinness is one of the heavyweights of Northern Irish politics, having played a key role both in the peace process and in the post-Good Friday Agreement governments. McGuinness is known to be undergoing treatment for an illness, but his party has refused to give any more information about the subject. He missed a trade mission to China on "medical advice" and Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams seemed to suggest it was a challenge.

There are new pressures on the peace process

As Kevin Meagher wrote in The Staggers last week, after McGuinness and Adams step down, a new generation of republicans will have to navigate an increasingly militant fringe, plus a British Prime Minister who seems to have forgotten that abolishing the Human Rights Act would also knock away the foundations of the Good Friday Agreement. 

An election looms

McGuinness was clear in his letter that this is what he is demanding - and because of the unique power-sharing arrangements in Northern Ireland, he is likely to get it. The deputy First Minister is actually a joint office held with the First Minister, so McGuinness in theory at least is bringing Foster down with him. According to the rules: "One cannot be in position without the other."

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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How the Lib Dems learned to love all-women shortlists

Yes, the sitting Lib Dem MPs are mostly white, middle-aged middle class men. But the party's not taking any chances. 

I can’t tell you who’ll be the Lib Dem candidate in Southport on 8 June, but I do know one thing about them. As they’re replacing a sitting Lib Dem (John Pugh is retiring) - they’ll be female.

The same is true in many of our top 20 target seats, including places like Lewes (Kelly-Marie Blundell), Yeovil (Daisy Benson), Thornbury and Yate (Clare Young), and Sutton and Cheam (Amna Ahmad). There was air punching in Lib Dem offices all over the country on Tuesday when it was announced Jo Swinson was standing again in East Dunbartonshire.

And while every current Lib Dem constituency MP will get showered with love and attention in the campaign, one will get rather more attention than most - it’s no coincidence that Tim Farron’s first stop of the campaign was in Richmond Park, standing side by side with Sarah Olney.

How so?

Because the party membership took a long look at itself after the 2015 election - and a rather longer look at the eight white, middle-aged middle class men (sorry chaps) who now formed the Parliamentary party and said - "we’ve really got to sort this out".

And so after decades of prevarication, we put a policy in place to deliberately increase the diversity of candidates.

Quietly, over the last two years, the Liberal Democrats have been putting candidates into place in key target constituencies . There were more than 300 in total before this week’s general election call, and many of them have been there for a year or more. And they’ve been selected under new procedures adopted at Lib Dem Spring Conference in 2016, designed to deliberately promote the diversity of candidates in winnable seats

This includes mandating all-women shortlists when selecting candidates who are replacing sitting MPs, similar rules in our strongest electoral regions. In our top 10 per cent of constituencies, there is a requirement that at least two candidates are shortlisted from underrepresented groups on every list. We became the first party to reserve spaces on the shortlists of winnable seats for underrepresented candidates including women, BAME, LGBT+ and disabled candidates

It’s not going to be perfect - the hugely welcome return of Lib Dem grandees like Vince Cable, Ed Davey and Julian Huppert to their old stomping grounds will strengthen the party but not our gender imbalance. But excluding those former MPs coming back to the fray, every top 20 target constituency bar one has to date selected a female candidate.

Equality (together with liberty and community) is one of the three key values framed in the preamble to the Lib Dem constitution. It’s a relief that after this election, the Liberal Democratic party in the Commons will reflect that aspiration rather better than it has done in the past.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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