Powersharing in Northern Ireland has been plunged into crisis after Martin McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister in protest at the Democratic Unionist Party’s handling of a botched renewable energy scheme.
The Sinn Fein politician’s move will lead to the collapse of the Stormont Executive and will force DUP First Minister Arlene Foster from office. An election will be called.
The structure of Stormont’s Executive Office means a first minister cannot hold the position without a co-equal deputy first minister.
Mr McGuinness announced his decision after his partner in government, Mrs Foster, repeatedly refused to step down to facilitate an inquiry into the ill-fated Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) – a scheme that has left Stormont facing a £490 million overspend.
Mr McGuinness said he was resigning with “deep regret and reluctance”.
“We in Sinn Fein will not tolerate the arrogance of Arlene Foster and the DUP,” he said. “I believe today is the right time to call a halt to the DUP’s arrogance.”
Mr McGuinness is experiencing health problems, but he insisted that had not influenced his decision. He said a decision on whether he would stand in the next election was an issue for “a later date”.
“The First Minister has refused to stand aside, without prejudice, pending a preliminary report from an investigation,” he said. “That position is not credible or tenable.”
He made clear that Sinn Fein would not replace him in the role. As a consequence, the collapse of the institutions and an election are now inevitable.
“We now need an election to allow the people to make their own judgment on these issues democratically, at the ballot box,” he said.
He added that the DUP were living in a “fool’s paradise” if they thought they would be able to return to government with Sinn Fein after an election if the RHI issue was not resolved.
Mrs Foster presided over the ill-fated RHI programme while economy minister. She has steadfastly refused to accede to Sinn Fein’s demand for her to step aside to facilitate an inquiry into her actions.
The state-funded RHI was supposed to offer a proportion of the cost businesses had to pay to run eco-friendly boilers, but the subsidy tariffs were set too high and, without a cap, it ended up paying out significantly more than the price of fuel. This enabled applicants to “burn to earn” – getting free heat and making a profit.
Claims of widespread abuse include a farmer allegedly set to pocket around £1 million in the next two decades for heating an empty shed.
Mr McGuinness’s move came hours after Mrs Foster accused him of playing a game of chicken and warned she would not blink first.
She said: “If he is playing a game of chicken, if Sinn Fein are playing a game of chicken, and they think we are going to blink in relation to me stepping aside they are wrong – I won’t be stepping aside. And if there is an election, there is an election.”