Northern Ireland, a small, artificial enclave of 1.8 million people, has been in constant turmoil since 1922 when Great Britain separated it from the rest of Ireland. In the years since it was created, thousands of its people have died in protest of that mistake and hundreds of soldiers have died trying to preserve it. The territory is so small that it cannot support itself, so Britain provides the financial support to pay the bills and keep it alive.
Over those 95 years, Northern Ireland and its people have been in constant conflict. A peace treaty known as the Good Friday Agreement was agreed upon in 1998 by the largely Catholic and Protestant opposing forces. But Britain still controls the purse strings and London is still in control.
The compact of 19 years ago set up a power-sharing Assembly to allow all parties to feel included. To govern the 108-person elected Assembly the agreement installed two co-equal leadership positions called the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. The leading vote-getting party would elect the First Minister and the second leading vote- getting party would elect the power-sharing Deputy First Minister.
Two of the early First Ministers were completely opposed to each other: the famous firebrand Protestant Minister Ian Paisley, from Belfast, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and the equally famous former leader of the IRA paramilitaries and now a leader of the Sinn Fein, the highly regarded Martin McGuinness from Derry.
To everyone’s surprise – and relief – they got along very well. This lasted until Paisley died. The two succeeding DUP First Ministers, Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster, set out to establish their party’s superior position by never missing an opportunity to counteract the Sinn Fein. This caused increased friction until McGuinness resigned last month. Under the laws set in the Good Friday agreement, this effectively brought the Northern Ireland Assembly to a halt since that body could not operate without balancing First Ministers. Control has reverted to the British Parliament.
Several things caused McGuinness to resign. First was a costly scandal involving the payments of outlandish sums to wealthy Northern Ireland farmers, mostly DUP, so they would switch to wood-burning fuels. The activity is known as the Renewable Heat Initiative (RHI) scheme. The opportunistic farmers were heating previously unheated barns to gain the subsidies, and no limits were set. The scandal could cost Northern Ireland taxpayers 490 million pounds over 20 years. Foster was Minister of Enterprise at the time, and it was her regime that set up the scheme.
When the new Minister for Enterprise, Jonathon Bell, a DUP party member, was installed, he objected and went public with his concern, much to Foster’s consternation. He was suspended from the DUP and the scandal became quite public. Two of the DUP advisors to the scheme have also resigned.
McGuinness called for Foster to temporarily resign while the investigation is going on. She refused, and he called her bluff by resigning, bringing down the government since two co-equal Ministers are required under the law. Foster quickly backed down and offered to endorse an investigation and mediate a solution. Sinn Fein refused to budge and Foster was out along with McGuinness.
With the Conservative government in London facing Brexit negotiations, the DUP is hopeful that its position in Northern Ireland will be improved. This could turn tragic if the Nationalist/Catholic side comes to believe it is losing its rights again.
James Brokenshire, the new Northern Ireland Secretary of State representing the British government, has called for new elections to the Assembly on Thurs., March 2. After the election the new Assembly will have three weeks to come together, organize, and elect two new First Ministers. This will not be easy.
Perhaps the saddest part of this whole story is McGuinness’s poor health. The Irish Times has reported that he is suffering from a serious disease called amyloidosis, which can broadly weaken a body’s operating systems. He has announced he will not be running for office again. This is a great loss to Sinn Fein and all the people of Northern Ireland. No one has more credibility to limit violence and negotiate the peace. He has the respect of everyone involved in the government and has been in the forefront of Northern Ireland affairs for almost 50 years. Everyone who cares about Ireland should pray that he is well enough to influence a good outcome in the coming months.
To replace him, the Sinn Fein has brilliantly named a relative newcomer to the public identity of Northern Ireland Republicanism as its candidate for First Minister: Michelle O’Neill, a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly representing Mid-Ulster for ten years and long a loyal Sinn Fein member. Forty years old, and married with two children, she is very close to McGuinness and is highly respected as a most articulate advocate for her proposals. And she has no connection with the IRA’s militarism of the past. Her appointment is another very public step on Sinn Fein’s travel towards peace and a United Ireland.