Q&A: What caused the Stormont crisis and can it be resolved?

The latest round of cross-party talks at Stormont follows months of tension in the North

Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness with Mary Lou McDonald and Gerry Adams before entering talks on Monday. Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press

Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness with Mary Lou McDonald and Gerry Adams before entering talks on Monday. Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press

 

Why is Stormont yet again in crisis?

For two reasons: over the status of the IRA following two recent killings in Belfast, and over British government welfare reform.

Did the IRA not leave the stage in 2005?

That is what was generally believed but the PSNI chief constable George Hamilton has reported it is still in the wings or in the theatre, which has unsettled unionist politicians.

The IRA element of this crisis began on May 5th last when former Belfast IRA commander Gerard Jock Davison was shot dead in broad daylight in the Markets in central Belfast.

Last month in a revenge attack another leading Belfast republican, Kevin McGuigan, was shot dead in the Short Strand in east Belfast.

Why did the murder of Mr McGuigan trigger such political turmoil?

The PSNI chief constable made an assessment that some IRA members who had joined with dissidents and criminals under the cover of a new group called Action Against Drugs killed McGuigan.

He also said the IRA still existed but he had no information to suggest those who killed McGuigan were acting with the authority of the IRA leadership.

So the IRA is back in business?

It’s much more complicated than that. Hamilton spoke of an IRA hierarchy but did not refer to an IRA army council. And he said the IRA was “committed to following a political path and is no longer engaged in terrorism”. He also accepted the “bona fides of the Sinn Féin leadership regarding their rejection of violence and pursuit of the peace process”.

Did Sinn Féin accept this PSNI assessment?

Certainly not. Sinn Féin leaders such as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have repeatedly said Hamilton is wrong. The Sinn Féin chairman in the North, Bobby Storey, said it had metamorphosed from a caterpillar into a butterfly that had flown away. “It’s gone, it’s disappeared,” he said.

Did unionist politicians accept these assurances?

Again certainly not, particularly as Storey and two other senior republicans, Brian Gillen and Eddie Copeland, were arrested in connection with McGuigan’s murder, although all three were released unconditionally.

What did unionists do?

First Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt withdrew his single Minister, Danny Kennedy, from the Northern Executive, which put pressure on DUP leader Peter Robinson to do the same.

He in turn tried to outflank Nesbitt by boycotting the Executive and seeking the adjournment or suspension of the Northern Assembly to facilitate between four and six weeks of uninterrupted talks.

He got neither which led him to standing aside – but not technically resigning – as First Minister and also withdrawing all his Ministers from the Executive apart from Arlene Foster, who is remaining both as acting First Minister and Minister of Finance.

Surely in such circumstances Stormont could not survive?

You might think so. However, Robinson, despite failing to get an adjournment or suspension, managed to buy time for the talks by demanding some security action from Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers.

On Friday, Villiers announced the creation of a three-person one-off commission that will provide a “factual assessment” on the “structure, role and purpose of paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland”.

Sinn Féin did not put up any objection to this commission with the result that Robinson could argue he had gained a concession and could therefore enter the talks which began on Monday.

The commission’s report due in mid-October will be considered at these talks involving Villiers, Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan and the five main parties in the North – the DUP, Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Ulster Unionist Party and Alliance.

Will this resolve the controversy over the status of the IRA and the murder of Mr McGuigan?

The commission’s report will be based on assessments from the PSNI and MI5 so there would be surprise if the report is substantially different from what Hamilton has already reported.

The British and Irish governments, however, hope that by the time of the commission’s report progress will have been made in the talks that would allow the issue of the IRA to be somehow finessed.

That could involve the creation of a new permanent body to replace the disbanded Independent Monitoring Commission to report on the status of the IRA and other paramilitaries.

So, the IRA issue could be resolved?

It could happen although it will be difficult to achieve. But, don’t forget, even if that hurdle is surmounted there is still the welfare problem.

What is the crux of the welfare issue?

Last Christmas, after yet more marathon talks, the parties signed up to the Stormont House Agreement.

This provided for £2 billion in extra spending for Stormont but was based on a commitment that all the parties would accept the British government’s UK-wide welfare changes.

The agreement included measures to deal with the past and to help the victims of the Troubles. It would also have facilitated a reduction in corporation tax to help bring in more investment into the North.

What went wrong?

This spring Sinn Féin and the SDLP said they could not live with the welfare cuts, notwithstanding that £564 million was being set aside solely for Northern Ireland to mitigate the worst effects of the cuts. The deadlock over welfare resulted in all the positive elements of the Stormont House Agreement being put on hold.

Is this serious?

Yes. According to DUP Minister of Finance Arlene Foster, in the coming weeks the Northern Executive will face an “unsustainable £600 million” shortfall in its budget.

Northern Secretary Ms Villiers has given a warning, saying that if the Stormont parties cannot settle the welfare issue then responsibility for welfare will revert back to Westminster.

Can this problem be solved?

Villiers repeated on Monday that no more money for welfare will be forthcoming from the British government.

Perhaps by the time these talks come to a head David Cameron could be persuaded to further loosen the purse strings, or by some shrewd accounting measures more money could be made available to alleviate the effects of welfare cuts.

But again it will be difficult and we could be left with another political talks failure.