It now seems obvious that Northern Ireland’s power sharing executive has fallen. Because of the way the country’s devolved government is set up, when deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness fell on his sword (or semtex) yesterday, the First Minister – Arlene Foster – goes as well. So the two-headed monster tumbles down and Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, takes over until new elections.
This is the situation we’re in now. Admittedly it isn’t quite direct rule—the Northern Ireland Assembly hasn’t gone away. But elections to it needn’t be immediate, and they probably won’t be. And more importantly, the founding architecture of the last 18 years of peace in the North—a political friendship between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin, as they co-operated to gobble up the centre-hugging Ulster Unionists and SDLP—crumbles like a rusty Ballymena tractor.
Give McGuinness his due. His partnership with Ian Paisley crystallised peace in Northern Ireland. He exercised his role well, bringing to it much more statesmanship than Sinn Féin’s bearded leadership in Dublin. His gesture of meeting the Queen last year was even the occasion for a bit of banter; having asked after her health, she arched an eyebrow and replied ‘Well, I’m still alive’. His exit is the last from the stage of those larger-than-life characters – including the likes of Lord Trimble and John Hume – who got us to where we are.
Or were. On the surface of it, the latest fracas is just a botched renewable energy project which squandered a bit of public money—the Renewable Heat Incentive, or this being Ireland, ‘cash for ash’. Really, though, it is the final breakdown of relations between the DUP and Sinn Féin, which have been fraying through splits on an Irish Language Act (there hasn’t been one), or even what to do with the site of HM Prison Maze.