By Ian Graham
The second largest pro-British party in Northern Ireland plans to leave the province’s power-sharing government after reports that the Irish Republican Army (IRA) may still be active, nudging the devolved administration closer to collapse.
Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Mike Nesbitt said that senior members of his party had unanimously agreed to withdraw his party’s single minister from the government after police said the IRA may have been involved in a murder.
An end to the IRA was a central plank of the 1998 Good Friday accord that largely ended three decades of violence in Northern Ireland between Catholics who favoured unification with the Republic of Ireland and Protestants wanting to stay British.
The UUP’s move will not automatically lead to the collapse of the administration, but is likely to increase pressure on the region’s largest party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which has already said it may consider such a move.
If the DUP was to leave, the governance of Northern Ireland would revert to London and cause a political crisis.
“There is a symbolic significance to the UUP leaving and it would prove very destabilising. It undermines the notion of proper, cross-community co-operation,” said Graham Walker, Professor of Politics, Queen’s University Belfast.
“It’s not clear how, if the instiutions fall, they could be put back together again.”
Police last week said the murder of former IRA member Kevin McGuigan in Belfast on Aug. 12 may have involved some members of the group, which police say is still active in some form, though no longer engaged in terrorism.
Several senior members of Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the IRA, have denied that the IRA still exists and said any former members involved with the murder must be prosecuted.
The UUP’s Nesbitt said Sinn Fein’s denials lacked credibility and had “worn a hole in the fabric of the [Good Friday] agreement”.
He said he had no indication if the DUP would follow his party’s suit in withdrawing.
Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein, a former IRA commander, said the UUP decision was “more about inter-Unionist rivalry than their and others’ feigned concern about our unequivocal commitment to peace”.