Northern Ireland’s power-sharing assembly teetered on the brink of collapse Thursday after the administration’s first minister resigned amid a crisis sparked by a murder allegedly linked to the disbanded IRA.
Peter Robinson said that he and all but one other member of his Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) would be stepping down from the Northern Ireland Assembly with “immediate effect.” The remaining DUP member, Arlene Foster, would remain in place to ensure “nationalists and republicans are not able to take financial and other decisions that may be detrimental to Northern Ireland,” Robinson added.
The development throws the assembly into one of its worse crisis since being set up under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, a landmark power-sharing deal that ushered in the end of a period of sectarian hostilities in Northern Ireland commonly known as the Troubles.
The latest political turmoil to hit the assembly centers on the murder in August of Kevin McGuigan, a former member of the paramilitary Irish Republican Army, or IRA. It is alleged that the father of nine was killed in a revenge attack for the killing of another former IRA general months ago.
Several prominent figures were recently arrested in the case, including Bobby Storey, a prominent regional chairman of Sinn Fein, the nationalist party that shares power with the pro-British DUP.
Storey and one other man, Eddie Copeland, were released "unconditionally," the Belfast Telegraph reported Thursday. His lawyer vowed to sue for wrongful arrest. A third man, Brian Gillen, and a 50 year-old woman remain in custody.
"The unconditional release of Bobby Storey underlines the contrived nature of the current crisis in the political institutions in the North," said Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, the Telegraph reported. Adams, has long been linked to the IRA although he has repeatedly deniede that he was a member.
Critics say the killing of McGuigan shows the IRA remains an active and violent paramilitary force despite the peace agreement.
Robinson said “business as usual” for the assembly was impossible because of “the assessment of the chief constable of the involvement of the IRA in murder, the continued existence of IRA structures, and the arrests that followed has pushed devolution to the brink.”
Prior to the DUP resignations, Robinson had sought to win support from other parties for an adjournment of the assembly. But a vote to suspend the power-sharing administration for emergency talks was defeated.
Despite Thursday's developments, the work of the assembly’s institutions will continue. And Robinson said talks would continue to find a way out of the current crisis.
But any collapse of the assembly could bring about a return of direct British control from Westminster.
Downing Street officials said Prime Minister David Cameron is “gravely concerned” by the developments and that he will seek a solution.
He spoke before Robinson stepped down but after several parties, including Sinn Fein, had voted against Robinson's request for an adjournment.
The last time the parliament was suspended in 2002, it took five years for the rival parties from the two communities to agree to sit again.
Sinn Fein, a political party linked to the disbanded IRA, has said it would be shocked if Storey were to be charged over the murder.
The 1998 agreement ended three decades of tit-for-tat killings between Catholic nationalists and pro-British Protestants that killed 3,600. Although presiding over a period of relative peace, the forced coalition has at times struggled amid intensifying sectarian bickering in recent years.
Al Jazeera and wire services