The January crisis in the northern Ireland assembly had the Independent newspaper speculating about rifts within the Sinn Féin leadership, and many similar ‘creditable sources’ speaking of a ploy to scupper Brexit. Meanwhile, the statement by Martin McGuinness that he would not be putting himself forward for re-election disclosed that he is suffering from a rare and serious illness requiring his full attention. (See Brexit: Theresa May’s Article 50 plans could be delayed by months due to Stormont crisis legal challenge by Siobhan Fenton, Independent, 13 January 2017)
Cash for ash
The renewable heat incentive (RHI, or ‘cash for ash’) scheme (or scandal, as it transpired) in the north of Ireland appears to have come at a fortuitous moment for Sinn Féin. Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader and northern Ireland first minister Arlene Foster – who, in her previous portfolio, oversaw a 2012 scheme in which businesses were paid handsomely for burning energy needlessly – is now up to her neck in allegations of corruption and scandal to the tune of some £500m, with the public set to pick up the bill.
Foster’s poll ratings suffered before Christmas and plummeted in early January, with the Belfast Telegraph reporting a fall in public confidence from 49 percent to 29 percent. All this encouraged DUP assembly member David McIlveen to declare Foster an “electoral liability”. (Poll: Arlene Foster’s leadership rating plummets by Jonny Bell, Belfast Telegraph, 6 January 2017)
It was clear, therefore, that the political crisis had become one that went beyond a dispute between the DUP and Sinn Féin, or even between unionism and nationalism. Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, and taking into account the present level of support enjoyed by the various parties in the north, if either the first minister or the deputy first minister resigns, and their party refuses to put forward a replacement, then the administration collapses and new elections have to be called within a reasonable timeframe.
In announcing his resignation, Comrade McGuinness said: “For me to be part of an administration that was being accused of corruption was absolutely intolerable, and under no circumstances is Sinn Féin willing to be part of an administration that is going to be continually subject to this sort of allegation, particularly when it’s coming directly at our partners in government.
“I felt I had no option whatsoever [but to resign] and it was with a very sore heart that I had to do what I had to do.”
McGuinness went on to reveal in interviews that he had been planning to step down in May in any event, owing to a serious illness.
Foster’s arrogance backfires
Even the unionist Belfast Telegraph had to recognise the principled nature of McGuinness’s conduct: “A frail and deeply ill deputy first minister chose to make his way to Stormont to announce his resignation and answer media questions. It appeared to even some of his fiercest critics as a courageous act by a man determined to fulfil his political duty in public, despite intensely challenging personal circumstances.
“By contrast, Ms Foster handed Sinn Féin and her other political opponents a major propaganda victory. She posted a video of herself delivering a monologue as she sat stiffly in front of a marble fireplace.
“Social media went wild, saying that the DUP leader thought she was the Queen.” (Arlene Foster’s tarnished image could see DUP battered at the polling booths by Suzanne Breen, 14 January 2017)
As an Irish Times editorial noted: “If most political journeys end in failure, Mr McGuinness may be fortunate in that regard. His resignation as deputy first minister because of Arlene Foster’s handling of the heat incentive scheme forced assembly elections. The indications are, however, that Sinn Féin – under a new leader to be appointed on Monday – will maintain, or even strengthen, its position in the assembly. At a time of generational change in Sinn Féin’s leadership, that would be a significant achievement, particularly if early agreement can be reached on re-establishing an executive.” (Martin McGuinness leaves the political stage: from revolutionary to advocate of compromise and co-existence, 21 January 2017)
The Belfast Telegraph article cited above complained bitterly about the likely effect of the whole episode on the mindset of unionists: “Mrs Foster, who never fired a shot or planted a bomb [no, she had the British army and loyalist paramilitaries to do that on her behalf], has bizarrely managed to make Martin McGuinness … seem reasonable and statesmanlike to many outside of Sinn Féin.”
Of course, it’s the fact that Mr McGuinness’s principled and reasonable behaviour should have been apparent even to those outside the nationalist community that really rankled with the Telegraph. Later in the same article, the author observed disconsolately: “Just three months ago at its annual conference, the DUP paraded two councillors who had defected from the UUP, and boasted that more converts were on their way. Not only will that not happen, but the party could be set for local civil wars.
“Smaller fields as we move from six-seat to five-seat constituencies will mean that some sitting DUP MLAs may not even be selected to contest the election.
“That will inevitably lead to bitterness, as representatives – elected just eight months ago – feel they have been deprived, through no fault of their own, of the status and salary of five years in office.”
A new leader for Sinn Féin
On 23 January Sinn Féin announced that Michelle O’Neill, previously the health minister, would be the party’s new leader in the north. In an interview published on the Sinn Féin website, Ms O’Neill echoed recent comments by Martin McGuinness that Sinn Féin are only interested in continuing their participation in the assembly and executive with “partners who are genuinely wedded to equality, and without that we can’t be there”. (We stand for equality, respect and integrity – O’Neill)
As Mr McGuinness said in his resignation statement: “Over the last 10 years I have worked tirelessly to make power-sharing work … The institutions are now in a deep crisis as a result of recent events and we are facing into an election when the people will have their say.
“It remains my own personal and political ambition to break the link with Britain and to unite all who share this island under the common banner of Irish men and women.
“I am deeply proud of the generation of Irish republicans that came before us. A generation that kept the vision of freedom alive through the difficult post-partition era when they faced unrelenting repression and persecution from the Ulster Unionist Party in an apartheid Orange state.
“I have been privileged to be part of the generation that broke that apartheid state apart and to have been part of a Sinn Féin leadership that delivered peace and radical change. There are more republicans today than at any time in my generation.
“But I want to be open and honest with my friends and colleagues in Sinn Féin, with the electorate of Foyle and with the wider community beyond my own constituency. I also want to be fair to my family and to the teams of carers who are doing their best to provide me with the treatment I now require to deal with this very serious medical condition, which I am very determined to overcome …
“Despite the current difficulties and challenges, I am confident and optimistic about the future. We have faced more difficult times and found a way forward. As a society we have made enormous progress. We must continue to move forward. Dialogue is the only option.” (Martin McGuinness resignation letter, sinnfein.ie, 9 January 2017)
Is this a re-run of the Brexit referendum?
As far as scuppering Brexit is concerned, it is of course well known that Sinn Féin was opposed to Brexit, as were the majority of the people of northern Ireland. Their reason was their strong feeling that there should be no resurrection of the border between north and south, which could be a consequence of Brexit.
This does not at all imply that they would necessarily wish to disregard the wishes of the majority of the British people outside Ireland or interfere in their affairs, and Sinn Féin is dealing with the situation by calling on the EU to recognise a special status within the EU for northern Ireland in view of its special circumstances.
It is quite possible that the prospect of losing benefits they were receiving from EU membership could influence unionists to change their traditional hostility to the reunification of Ireland, since the Irish republic obviously will remain in the EU. Should such attitudes become current in the unionist community, the time might become opportune for holding a referendum to reunite Ireland, but Sinn Féin would not want to go ahead without the support of the majority of those who now make up the unionist community, even if technically such a referendum were winnable.
The party’s aim is not just an Ireland that is united in name, but also an Ireland whose different communities are united and happy to live together.
Be that as it may, Sinn Féin is insistent that the forthcoming election is not about Brexit vs remain, or about unionist vs republican, or about orange vs green. It is purely about putting an end to a corruption scandal that has outraged everybody from both communities.
The CPGB-ML sends its best wishes to Martin McGuinness, who has been a courageous revolutionary and tireless political activist for nearly five decades, for a full and speedy recovery and for the greatest possible success for Sinn Féin in the elections that have been called for 2 March.
We reiterate our principled position that British imperialism should end all interference in the affairs of the Irish people and in favour of Irish independence and reunification.