Devolved government in Northern Ireland has been dealt a major setback today when Sinn Fein announced that they wouldn’t nominate a new deputy First Minister following Martin McGuinness’ resignation last week. McGuinness resigned over a renewable energy scheme championed by First Minister Arlene Foster when she was Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment.
Under the power-sharing arrangements established by the Belfast Agreement and its successors, the First Minister and deputy First Minister are the joint heads of the Northern Ireland Executive (i.e., Northern Ireland’s government), so Foster also had to step down when McGuinness resigned. Although she was duly renominated by the Democratic Unionist Party, Sinn Fein’s refusal to nominate a deputy First Minister effectively prevents her from taking office again. This means that the Northern Ireland Executive can no longer function, and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must invoke section 32 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and advise the Queen to hold an extraordinary election for the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The current situation represents a grave threat to the devolution settlement in Northern Ireland. If the newly elected Assembly still can’t agree on a First Minister and deputy First Minister, devolved government may well have to be suspended. In that case, Northern Ireland would once again be ruled directly from Westminster, though the British government is doing its best to downplay this possibility.
One can only hope that the election will generate light rather than heat, and the political parties (and their respective communities) will be able to figure out a way to continue working together for the good of Northern Ireland as a whole.