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.”