Why Is Northern Ireland Slipping Into Political Crisis?

Stormont Assembly
The Parliament Buildings at Stormont, Northern Ireland, January 10. The province faces the possibility of London running its affairs again. Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

Northern Ireland, one of the four nations that make up the United Kingdom, is sliding into a political crisis after its Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigned from his post this week. The move makes snap elections likely, and even calls into question the existence of a power-sharing deal that has helped safeguard peace in the once-troubled province.

So what’s happening, and why? Here’s what you need to know:

How does the government work in Northern Ireland?

Northern Ireland, separate from the Republic of Ireland to the south since it became independent from British rule in 1922, is run by a power-sharing government.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which largely ended decades of brutal sectarian conflict between republicans (who want an independent Ireland) and unionists (who favor continued union with the U.K.), established a system in which the posts of first minister and deputy first minister would have equal powers. One position is occupied by a unionist, the other by a republican.

A calculation known as the d’Hondt system works out how many ministers in the cabinet should be drawn from republican and unionist parties, based on how many seats those parties win in elections.

Since 2007, the deputy first minister post has been held by the republican party Sinn Fein, and the first minister post has been held by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

What went wrong this week?

It should serve as a warning to politicians everywhere that an agreement which has managed to bridge the deepest ideological divide in British politics is now being threatened by something as superficially boring as energy subsidies.

McGuinness and Sinn Fein had been calling for First Minister Arlene Foster of the DUP to step aside over her role in setting up the Renewable Heating Incentive, a scheme that aimed to encourage businesses to burn wood pellets rather than fossil fuels to increase heat consumption from renewable sources. Whistleblowers have said the scheme’s poor design meant it wasted taxpayers’ money, claiming that farmers exploited it by, for example, heating empty sheds to get public money.

Sinn Fein wanted Foster to step aside during an inquiry into the scheme, but she refused to do so, accusing the party of playing a “game of chicken.” So McGuinness stepped down instead. Because Northern Ireland must always have a first minister and a deputy first minister in place under the terms of the power-sharing agreement, his resignation means Foster cannot continue to govern alone.

So what happens next?

Foster has now announced an inquiry into the scheme, and has said she is open to discussions with Sinn Fein. If the disagreement cannot be solved in seven days then the British government is mandated to call an election.

But the republicans have said a “new deal” is necessary if the power-sharing agreement is to be restored. Sinn Fein says the DUP has failed to treat it with "equality and respect" in recent months.

If an election is held but the two parties still cannot reach a coalition deal afterwards, the British government could take the dramatic step of reinstating its direct rule over the province.