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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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It's not WhatsApp that was at fault in the Westminster attacks. It's our prisons

Britain's criminal justice system neither deterred nor rehabilitated Khalid Masood, and may even have facilitated his radicalisation. 

The dust has settled, the evidence has been collected and the government has decided who is to blame for the attack on Westminster. That’s right, its WhatsApp and their end-to-end encryption of messages. Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, wants tech companies to install a backdoor into messages like these that the government can then access.

There are a couple of problems here, not least that Adrian Russell aka Khalid Masood was known to the security services but considered to be low-risk. Even if the government had had the ability to gain entry to his WhatsApp, they wouldn’t have used it. Then there’s the fact that end-to-end encryption doesn’t just protect criminals and terrorists – it protects users from criminals and terrorists. Any backdoor will be vulnerable to attack, not only from our own government and foreign powers, but by non-state actors including fraudsters, and other terrorists.

(I’m parking, also, the question of whether these are powers that should be handed to any government in perpetuity, particularly one in a country like Britain’s, where near-unchecked power is handed to the executive as long as it has a parliamentary majority.)

But the biggest problem is that there is an obvious area where government policy failed in the case of Masood: Britain’s prisons system.

Masood acted alone though it’s not yet clear if he was merely inspired by international jihadism – that is, he read news reports, watched their videos on social media and came up with the plan himself – or he was “enabled” – that is, he sought out and received help on how to plan his attack from the self-styled Islamic State.

But what we know for certain is that he was, as is a recurring feature of the “radicalisation journey”, in possession of a string of minor convictions from 1982 to 2002 and that he served jail time. As the point of having prisons is surely to deter both would-be offenders and rehabilitate its current occupants so they don’t offend again, Masood’s act of terror is an open-and-shut case of failure in the prison system. Not only he did prison fail to prevent him committing further crimes, he went on to commit one very major crime.  That he appears to have been radicalised in prison only compounds the failure.

The sad thing is that not so very long ago a Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice was thinking seriously about prison and re-offending. While there was room to critique some of Michael Gove’s solutions to that problem, they were all a hell of a lot better than “let’s ban WhatsApp”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.