The delicate power-sharing at Stormont was thrown into disarray last week with the unexpected resignation of deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. From IRA leader to peace broker and statesman, it has been an interesting journey for the Derryman. He has played a key role in the complex political landscape of Northern Ireland and his departure signals the beginning of an inevitable generational shift within Sinn Féin and the North itself.
McGuinness has been an essential element of the Sinn Féin hierarchy for decades, playing a pivotal role in the signing of the Belfast Agreement and subsequently in government as the Minister for Education and more recently as deputy leader. He differs from his colleague Gerry Adams as there is no doubt about McGuinness’ IRA past (although uncertainty over specific dates and claims of Army Council membership abound in some quarters).
McGuinness has managed to transcend tribal barriers to an extent and garner praise for his representing of both sides of the community. Although his past most certainly precedes him it has never become an insurmountable obstacle. His surprising rapport with Ian Paisley even earned them the moniker of the Chuckle Brothers.
Whether McGuinness’ resignation hinges on his health or an opportunistic move by Sinn Féin is unclear. What remains certain, however, is that once we overcome the initial shock it will be the same old unstable situation for Northern Ireland. There remains a slim possibility of resolving the issue with both sides declaring their openness to talks. However, if Sinn Féin do not provide McGuinness’ successor within the next seven days (and they have stated they will not do so) the Secretary of State, James Brokenshire, will dissolve the assembly and fresh elections will take place. This is the most likely scenario.
The imminent election will contain few surprises. Pollsters, having had a difficult run of late, will have a much easier task when faced with the identity based voting patterns of the assembly elections. McGuinness’ Foyle seat will be retained by Sinn Féin as will many other seats that have been labelled, in the past, as the ‘personal fiefdoms’ of their respective communities. The predictability of such elections serves to only highlight the difference between Northern Irish politics and the politics of the Republic or Britain.
The recent controversy over the ‘cash for ash’ scandal and calls for Arlene Foster to step down are demonstrative of such differences. Although the £400 million debacle is nothing to be flippant about, the reaction of both sides is equally important in its portrayal of an unstable system that prioritises electoral gains over running a government. Arlene Foster’s crying foul of supposed ‘misogyny’ is indiscernible from similar Sinn Féin ploys in a political landscape that functions despite, or perhaps even because of such politicking.
When the dust settles on the North’s latest set-back British and Irish attention will swiftly return once more to the more humdrum affairs of their respective governments. Outsiders looking in will resemble an awakening Alice, interested but unnerved by the events of Wonderland. Sinn Féin and the DUP will remain as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, while the election will possess the usual buzzwords of ‘confidence building measures’ and ‘reconciliation’, the Jaberwocky that is Northern Irish political discourse. Northern Irish citizens, meanwhile, will remain unrepresented, mere pawns in a larger strategic game of political chess.