On 9 January 2017, Martin McGuinness MLA resigned as deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. He said there were a number of reasons behind his decision – not just relating to the Renewable Heat Incentive controversy, but also in respect of cultural, equality and legacy issues. The resignation leaves Northern Ireland’s political institutions teetering on the brink of collapse, with the Executive hamstrung and the Assembly even more divided.
What happens now?
Mr. McGuinness’ resignation is almost certain to lead to an Assembly election.
Sinn Féin has until Monday 16 January to nominate another MLA to the role of deputy First Minister. Should this happen, the institutions would be ‘saved’ and the Assembly would remain in place.
However, the party has made clear that it will not nominate anyone to the role. If the deputy First Ministers post remains vacant on 16 January, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Rt. Hon. James Brokenshire MP, will be tasked with setting a date for a new Assembly election.
The earliest that this election could be held is during the week commencing 27 February 2017 (most likely on Thursday 2 March 2017). Mr. Brokenshire does not have to act immediately, and may be tempted to delay to allow room for the DUP and Sinn Féin to find a resolution.
Conversely, however, the UK Government’s Brexit timetable may push him in the opposite direction. The Supreme Court in London is due to rule on constitutional issues affecting the triggering of Article 50. If the Court rules that the devolved governments must be consulted first – mindful that Theresa May wants to start formal EU divorce proceedings by the end of March – the Secretary of State may opt for an early election, to ensure Stormont has a government in place to be consulted.
While these calculations are being made, yesterday’s events will have a number of implications for day-to-day governing in Northern Ireland.
Under our power sharing arrangements, Mr. McGuinness’ resignation means that Arlene Foster also loses her office. She can continue to exercise some functions, but her role is very limited.
Other Executive Ministers (including the Junior Ministers in the Executive Office) keep their jobs, and will remain in post right up until election day, should one be called. The same applies to their Special Advisers. With no First Minister or deputy First Minister in place, however, the Executive Committee cannot meet. This means that any measures needing Executive approval (including the 2017/18 Budget and departmental legislation) are put on hold.
The Assembly will continue to operate, with plenary sessions and committee business continuing as before. If an election is called, the Assembly will be dissolved six weeks prior to polling day under normal purdah rules.
There is some speculation, however, that Sinn Féin may fully or partially withdraw its MLAs from Assembly business until after the election. As well as disrupting the running of Assembly business (e.g. it could lead to quorum issues in committee sessions), fears of this course of action might also encourage the Secretary of State to call an election sooner rather than later.
Beyond fresh elections
It’s important to remember that a fresh election won’t necessarily solve the current political crisis. When he announced his resignation to the media, Martin McGuinness said:
“…there will be no return to the status quo [after an election] except on terms that are acceptable to Sinn Féin… if the DUP think that in the aftermath of an election that they’re going to step back into ministerial positions short of resolving critical issues… they are living in a fool’s paradise.”
The message here is simple: in the aftermath of an election, which would almost certainly return the DUP and Sinn Féin as the two largest parties, Sinn Féin could prevent a new Executive from being formed by refusing to nominate a deputy First Minister. In essence, Sinn Féin would demand movement from the DUP on RHI and other issues before agreeing to form an Executive.
If an Executive isn’t established 14 days after the election, the options open to the Secretary of State would be:
- Call another election; or
- Bring forward emergency legislation in Westminster to suspend the Northern Ireland institutions until a resolution can be found.