Northern Ireland’s first minister resigned on Thursday and asked the British government to suspend the province’s parliament, in a protest over a murder that police said was linked to the disbanded Irish Republican Army.
First Minister Peter Robinson’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) had said on Wednesday its ministers would resign if its call for an adjournment was not backed or London did not agree to suspend parliament.
The row erupted after Bobby Storey, a senior member of Sinn Fein, was arrested on Wednesday in relation to the killing of Kevin McGuigan, a former IRA member, in August. Storey was released on Thursday without being charged.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said he was gravely concerned about the events, which threaten to become the worst political crisis in the province since a 1998 peace deal ended decades of violence between Catholic Irish nationalists and their Protestant rivals.
If the British government chose to bring in new legislation to suspend parliament, the governance of Northern Ireland would probably revert to London before elections take place. However, neither side agreed on whether elections should be called.
The DUP, the province’s largest pro-British party, had tried but failed to win support from rival parties for an adjournment. That prompted Robinson and all bar one of the DUP ministers to step aside.
“I want to see Northern Ireland moving forward, but you can’t carry on as if nothing has happened when you have the chairman of the main partner that you have in government arrested about a murder,” Robinson told reporters.
“The fact that leading members of Sinn Fein have been associated with a murder indicates to us that we cannot do business as usual. We trust that talks will be able to take place and a suspension will occur to give the space to do that.” Sinn Fein is part of the province’s coalition government.
Robinson said DUP minister Arlene Foster will remain in her post as finance minister and take over as acting first minister. Had he stepped aside and not filled the vacated post, an election would have been triggered automatically.
The 1998 Good Friday power-sharing deal ended three decades of tit-for-tat killings between Catholic nationalists and pro-British Protestants that killed 3,600. But the forced coalition that took power has struggled as sectarian bickering worsened.
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. Robinson has warned that if talks fail this time, it could take a decade before parliament is revived.
HANGING IN THE BALANCE
Police suspect members of the IRA, a paramilitary group that is supposed to have disbanded as part of the 1998 agreement, were involved in the Aug. 12 shooting of McGuigan, prompting the crisis talks. Sinn Fein said on Wednesday that Storey, its regional chairman, was one of three men arrested.
Sinn Fein denies the IRA is still active, saying it “left the stage” after a 2005 ceasefire.
“Isn’t it ridiculous that lowlife criminals who murdered two men have the ability to bring down democratic institutions that I believe do have the overwhelming support of the people of Ireland,” said Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein, referring to an earlier murder of a another ex-IRA member.
No one expects a return to armed conflict in the province, but McGuinness has previously warned a stalemate would “create a vacuum that would be exploited by violent elements on all sides”.
Cameron’s spokeswoman said the British prime minister was deeply concerned about the situation. He is already wrestling with re-shaping Britain’s ties with the European Union before a referendum on EU membership due by 2017.
Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers said the parties urgently needed to get together for talks and that suspending parliament was not something London thought was right to do.
“It is a bad day for Northern Ireland’s political process and I think it is also worth remembering there have been a number of such bad days,” Villiers told reporters.
Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan said the parties should work together to give it “one final chance”, but admitted that they were running out of time.
The fate of the grand coalition has been hanging in the balance since the province’s junior pro-British party, the Ulster Unionists, quit last month after reports that IRA might still be active.