‘The Irish Times’ view: NI Assembly election a price worth paying

Martin McGuinness resigns

 

Outgoing First Minister Arlene Foster has from day one underestimated and belittled the scale of the scandal that the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme represents.

She has adopted a similar approach to her responsibilities, both as the originating minister of the “cash for ash”scheme when economics minister, and as First Minister.

In the end she saw it all as a political game, and obsessed on not doing - as she saw it - Sinn Féin’s bidding.

“If he is playing a game of chicken,” she said of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, “if Sinn Féin are playing a game of chicken and they think we are going to blink in relation to me stepping aside, they are wrong – I won’t be stepping aside,” she said. “And if there is an election, there is an election.”

There will be an election.

Mr McGuinness’s stance in asking her to step aside temporarily has the backing not just of Sinn Féin but of all the North’s parties except her own.

A proper response

His resignation on Monday is in this instance a proper response from a man who, in his own words, “has served 10 difficult and testing years in the role of Deputy First Minister”, to a shambles that may yet cost Northern taxpayers some £490 million. And which has exposed the hollowness of formal powersharing and of the idea of collective responsibility in the Executive.

These are principles that had been difficult for Sinn Féin to swallow – to expect it now to behave as if they were insignificant would be ridiculous.

The legal checks and balances incorporated in the structure of Stormont’s Executive Office, specifically the co-equal standing of both Ministers, impose a special onus on Ms Foster, which she has blatantly ignored, to work hand in hand with Mr McGuinness in dealing with such a problem.

It is entirely appropriate that his resignation should bring her down too. That is part of the price they pay for mechanisms designed to overcome the North’s bitter divisions.

And it is also difficult to conceive of another legislature in Europe in which a minister responsible for such a fiasco would not resign, let alone stand aside pending an inquiry.

‘Normal politics’

Most Northern voters have long aspired to see emerging from its institutions something called “normal politics”, an aspiration long championed by Ms Foster’s Democratic Unionist Party. Some irony there.

Mr McGuinness cites other disputes with the DUP, including over Irish and stalled mechanisms to deal with the legacy of the Troubles, in explaining his resignation.

Indeed, it has been clear for some time that the road was running out for this administration.

It has been held together more out of a desire to keep alive the institutions and spirit of the Belfast Agreement than a sense that it was producing the goods, administering public services well or, indeed, reconciling communities. Perhaps this is all for the best, and “normal politics”.

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