What on Earth is going on in Northern Ireland?


Northern Ireland has had a turbulent history of civil strife and controversial governing. The twentieth-century was plagued with violent conflict between Protestants and Catholics, and disagreements with the Westminster government on the devolution of powers to Northern Ireland continue to cause tension. The existence of armed groups on both sides of the conflict has been a serious threat to any kind of truce since the early 1900s; groups such as the Provisional IRA (now more commonly referred to as the IRA) are viewed by many as terrorist organisation. Their ceasefire in 1994 and the Good Friday peace agreement of 1999 largely brought an end to the violence. The period 1969 to 1999, in which 3,500 people died, including many civilians, as a result of the civil war, has become known as ‘the Troubles’.


Today, Northern Ireland is, like Scotland and Wales, a devolved assembly of the United Kingdom. Power in Stormont, the Northern Irish parliament building, is shared between a number of parties, with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), led by Peter Robinson, and Sinn Féin, led by Gerry Adams, holding most influence. The DUP is the larger of the two main parties and has its origins in the unionist side of the Troubles – its members supported inclusion in the UK and the presence of a constitutional monarchy. Sinn Féin, on the other hand, represent the still often vocal, nationalist side of the conflict and have been associated with the IRA. Since the Good Friday Agreement, this system has largely prevented any outbreaks of violence between the two elements and has allowed Northern Ireland to attempt to unify behind its devolved assembly and the Westminster government.


However, the recent events in Stormont have become a worrying reminder of the ideological divisions in the region, and the shooting of former IRA gunman Kevin McGuigan in August has brought back chilling memories of the brutal violence that tore Northern Ireland apart two decades ago.

Kevin McGuigan, who had worked as a gunman for the IRA during the Troubles, was murdered outside his home in Belfast. He was  accused of murdering an ex-IRA comrade in May, but had denied the allegation, but his murder immediately sparked controversy and plunged the devolved assembly in Northern Ireland into crisis. The continued existence of the IRA after the Good Friday peace agreement would forge a sizeable rift in the current power-sharing deal that governs the region.

To make matters worse, in addition to the murder of Kevin McGuigan, the DUP/Sinn Féin-led coalition had reached deadlock over passing the welfare cuts introduced by the Westminster government in the Summer Budget. McGuigan’s death and, more importantly, the alleged involvement of the IRA in it, proved to be the final straw for the already shaky relationship between the unionists and the nationalists. The only Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) minister in the coalition left the cabinet table at the possibility of a resurgence of the IRA, leaving Robinson and the DUP in a difficult situation.

The power-sharing agreement between the DUP and Sinn Féin has all-but collapsed, with First Minister Peter Robinson and almost all other DUP MPs resigning on 10 September. On 10 September, the Guardian reported Robinson’s resignation as ‘a dramatic move that threatens to collapse the Northern Ireland assembly for the first time since 2007, Robinson warned that the continued existence of IRA structures had “pushed devolution to the brink”.’

Robinson stopped short of dissolving devolution completely by asking Finance Minister Arlene Foster to resume leadership as acting First Minister, to ensure no financial decisions were made that may be ‘detrimental to Northern Ireland’. This aimed to keep devolution alive for a few more weeks, to allow the British government in Westminster to attempt to strike a deal having already refused to suspend the Stormont assembly.

The power-sharing agreement was formed because of a lack of trust of both sides between the unionists and the nationalists. Robinson and the DUP have hesitated to leave Stormont entirely because of this ingrained lack of trust of Sinn Féin and the nationalists; if the DUP stepped aside the Northern Ireland assembly would be run by a minority government led by Sinn Féin. Robinson’s request of the Northern Ireland secretary in Westminster, Theresa Villiers, to dissolve the Stormont assembly would prevent a nationalist takeover of power. But Villiers may instead call an election to establish a democratic conclusion to the crisis. Robinson has already been criticised for his handling of the situation, and he must trust that Villiers, and Prime Minister David Cameron, understand the perceived danger of allowing the nationalist parties in the coalition to resume control of Stormont all-but unopposed.

An independent panel has been convened to investigate whether or not the IRA have resumed armed operations and to assess the status of other parliamentary groups. The peer Lord Carlisle, a top civil servant and a barrister are to head the inquiry. Talks were held at Stormont on Monday 21 September between all five parties involved in the power-sharing agreement. The aim of the discussions was to come to an agreement on the continuation of devolution and the future of Northern Ireland’s relationship with the Westminster government. Unionist parties in the coalition agreed to join the talks only after it was announced that an inquiry was being launched into the alleged resurgence of IRA activity.

The conclusion of the talks is as yet unclear, however there is a strong incentive to maintain the current system of devolution from Westminster.


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