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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 editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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Labour is condemned to watch helplessly as Theresa May consolidates power

The Zombie Party is too weak to win and too strong to die. 

Labour’s defeat to the Tories in the Copeland by-election in Cumbria, which the party had held for more than 80 years, is a humiliation for Jeremy Corbyn and his moribund party. This is the first time a governing party had gained a seat in a by-election since Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives won Mitchum and Morden in 1982. 
 
The victorious candidate Trudy Harrison, who increased the Tories’ share of the vote in this former Labour “stronghold" by more than 8 percentage points, hailed the victory as “truly historic”, while Labour MP John Woodcock called it a “disaster”, and even the shadow chancellor and Corbyn ally, John McDonnell, conceded it was a “profound disappointment”. 
 
At a time in the electoral cycle when a credible opposition should be winning by-elections and riding high in the polls, Labour is in disarray: rejected, humiliated, ridiculed. It has all but collapsed in Scotland, where the Tory leader Ruth Davidson has emerged as the popular, unapologetic leader of Unionism. And in England the danger now is not that it will lose seats to Ukip — whose leader Paul Nuttall was rejected yesterday in the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election, which Labour held on a low turn-out after a dispiriting campaign — but to Theresa May’s Conservatives. 
 
The Copeland result was a vindication for Theresa May. When recently I interviewed her in Downing Street she had a simple message for Labour: we are coming after your voters – and she is. 
 
Because of its embrace of the radical left and internal divisions, May accused Labour of abandoning many of its traditional supporters. The party was not responding to their concerns on issues such as “the impact of immigration on lower income levels”.
 
True enough: Corbyn favours mass immigration and open borders yet is an economic protectionist – a classic Marxist position but electoral suicide in our new emerging post-liberal era in which populist movements are rising across Europe and an America First nationalist is in the White House.
 
“I hope there are Labour voters,” Theresa May told me, “out there who will now look at us afresh and say, ‘Labour hasn’t responded to our concerns, it hasn’t recognised what matters to us, but the Conservatives have seen that and are responding to it. I want our greater prosperity not to be confined to particular groups of people or a single part of the country.”
 
The polls suggest that more than simply disaffected Labour voters are looking at the Tories afresh, as we embark on the epic challenge of negotiating the Brexit settlement.
  
May believes that Brexit was not only a vote to leave the European Union but a demand for change from those people – many of them in places such as Copeland - who felt ignored and excluded from prosperity and greater opportunity.
 
Her vision is for a “Great Meritocracy” (whereas Corbyn’s is for a socialist republic) combining greater social justice with enhanced social mobility. It’s an intellectually fascinating and ambitious project and, if successful (and many doubt her, not least her own right wing), it has the potential to condemn Labour to electoral oblivion.
    
The collapse of the Labour party as a stable and credible political force is dismaying. Many of the party’s problems precede Corbyn, who is sincere and determined but is not a national leader. But then neither was Ed Miliband, who misunderstood the financial crisis, which he believed had created a “social democratic moment”, and misread the country he sought to govern. Miliband treated politics like an elevated Oxbridge PPE seminar and introduced the new rules by which the party elected its leader, disempowering MPs.
 
The distinguished Cambridge historian Robert Tombs has called the European Union a system of “managed discontents”. Something similar could be said of Corbyn’s Labour, except that its discontents are scarcely managed at all.

Most Labour MPs despise or are embarrassed by their leader. The MPs are divided and demoralised, with some pondering whether to follow Tristram Hunt and Jamie Reed (whose resignations created respectively the Stoke Central and Copeland by-elections) out of politics. The Corbynites are breaking up into factions (one hears talk of “hard” and “soft” Corbynites), and Corbyn himself is incapable of appealing to those who do not share his ideological convictions.
 
For now, the Labour leader retains the support of activists and members and, crucially, of Unite, Britain’s biggest union and the party’s paymaster. But even his friends must accept that he is leading the party in only one direction – into the abyss.
 
On the eve of the two by-elections, Corbyn posted a message on Facebook: “Whatever the results, the Labour Party – and our mass membership – must go further to break the failed political consensus, and win power to rebuild and transform Britain.”
 
The statement was received with derision on social media. The idea that Labour can win power any time soon (notwithstanding some black swan event) is magical thinking. Corbyn’s personal ratings among traditional working class semi-skilled and unskilled Labour voters are catastrophically poor. He appeals to students, affluent metropolitans with degrees, and minority groups. As for the majority of the electorate, forget it.
 
MPs are reluctant to challenge Jeremy Corbyn because they know any leadership contest would revitalize his leadership, as happened last summer when the Welsh MP Owen Smith mounted an ill-considered and doomed “coup”. Nor is there a pre-eminent candidate waiting in the shadows to strike, as Michael Heseltine was in the last years of the Thatcher administration.
 
So Labour will continue to be the Zombie Party: too weak to win but too strong to die. Its founding mission was to defend the labour interest and to create a fairer, more ethical society. But Labour has lost its role, its confidence and sense of purpose. Obsessed by identity liberalism, bewildered by Brexit and led by a radical socialist, Labour can only look on helplessly as the Tories start to win seats in its former heartlands and hunker down for another decade or more in power.

This column was originally published in the London Evening Standard.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.