Sinn Fein has expressed a much tougher line against the intransigence and bigotry of the DUP following the resignation by Martin McGuinness from the party’s post of Deputy First Minister. An election to the Stormont Assembly in Belfast appears certain to be called next Monday and is due to take place within weeks.
A further election and an extended period of Direct Rule from London are also now being predicted as possible outcomes if DUP leader Arlene Foster continues to refuse to step down over the latest corruption scandal to engulf her party.
Britain’s governor in Ireland, James Brokenshire told the House of Commons in London earlier Tuesday that the political situation was “grave” ahead of an effective deadline of Monday for calling the election.
“The clock is ticking,” he said. “If there is no resolution, then an election is inevitable, despite the widely held view that this election may deepen divisions and threaten the continuity of the devolved institutions.”
It is believed the election will take place in late February or early March to an Assembly reduced in size from 108 to 90 seats. The mathematics of the outcome under the rules proscribed in the St Andrews Agreement could determine whether it is possible to restore power-sharing at Stormont.
Brokenshire indicated that, in the event that no government is formed after subsequent talks, yet another election would be required under legislation, the third within twelve months.
The DUP Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson said he was uncertain whether the Six County Executive and Assembly could be restored, even after elections.
He accused Sinn Fein of dealing a serious blow to powersharing and
added: “My own sense of where we are is that we are looking at a prolonged period of [British government] Direct Rule, because I don’t see these issues being resolved in a talks process in a short space of time.”
Earlier today, Sinn Fein’s deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald strongly criticised the North’s outgoing First Minister Arlene Foster and the DUP, and insisted that her party’s demand for Foster to stand aside as First Minister would remain after an election, which she said should go ahead.
Foster is very closely associated with the renewable heat incentive
(RHI) scandal, which has become known as “cash for ash”, as the scheme was introduced when she was minister for enterprise. She has been accused by a former DUP Minister of acting to conceal her level of involvement in the scandal.
Foster continues to deny any wrongdoing. At the weekend, the DUP leader accused Sinn Fein of ‘playing chicken’ and said she would not ‘blink first’. Today she said she would refuse to step aside as it would indicate she was “guilty of something improper which is not the case”. She called for an immediate inquiry into the affair. “I have been disgracefully maligned in the most vicious manner and therefore it is of the utmost importance that the truth comes out,” she said.
Asked if Sinn Fein would form an Executive with Foster after an election, Ms McDonald said: “The position won’t change at either side of an election as to the need for her to stand aside if she were to be in a Ministerial position, for an investigation to proceed.”
Speaking to journalists at Leinster House on Tuesday afternoon, Ms McDonald also said that any revival of the power-sharing administration after an election “will require the DUP to do significant soul-searching, to change their approach, to appreciate the realities of political life”.
She said that the DUP had to “understand that the population, whether orange or green… won’t tolerate on the basis of tribal blindness malpractice, bad government or blatant discrimination. It’s not on.
It’s not acceptable.”
Power-sharing would not work, Ms McDonald said, “where one party so clearly and so frequently pokes the other party in the eye, but worse than that, sets out to deny basic democratic rights to sections of the population. That is not a runner.”
She said that the DUP were “people who assume they have a divine right to govern and that they can thumb their nose at their partners in government and, by extension, at the general public”.
Referring to the RHI scheme, Ms McDonald said that Ms Foster was “the instigator, the overseer of this disastrous scheme. She has refused to stand aside to allow a fully independent inquiry. That is her position.
“Her party backs her. I have to say it is very much in line with the sort of arrogant position that they have taken for a very long time.
And there comes a point in political life where you have to call things. Our view now is that it is over to the people to have their say on these matters,” Ms McDonald said.
“Arlene Foster and the DUP seem to me to be living in a state of denial. I think they need to get over that. They need to understand that the game is up, that we are facing into elections, that as we come out of these elections these big issues need to be resolved, and the fundamental underlying difficulty of the DUP refusing to be Good Friday Agreement-compliant, their refusal to respect minorities, their refusal to respect people’s democratic rights, will no longer be tolerated.
“Patience is a great virtue, but patience is not infinite.”