The stability of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government is at risk after a series of political tensions and crises.
Relationships between the political parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly have been strained in recent months due to budget concerns and cuts to welfare.
Last month, former Provisional Irish Republic Army (IRA) member, Steven McGuigan, was murdered on Aug. 12., leading many to believe that the Provisional IRA is still armed and carrying out violence.
Patrick ‘Paddy’ Roche, former politician in Belfast and professor in John Brown University’s Irish Studies Program, said McGuigan’s murder “has very significantly exacerbated an existing political tension at Stormont.”
“The existence of the IRA as an active paramilitary unit threatens power sharing because it raises the question for unionists of whether or not the IRA still exists,” said Roche.
These allegations are concerning because, if they are true and the provisional IRA is still armed, then it is in violation of the Belfast Agreement, also known as the Good Friday Agreement. The Agreement, ratified in 1998, ended the decades of violent sectarian conflicts in Ireland, known as The Troubles, by decommissioning all weapons and creating democratic opportunities to resolve conflict. It is an essential piece of legislation in the country, ultimately allowing peace and the sharing of power between various political parties in the country’s executive government.
Sinn Fein, the nationalist political party formerly associated with the IRA, has denied the IRA’s involvement in the murder of McGuigan according to the BBC.
However, the opposing unionist political parties and police involved in the case have stated otherwise.
A major concern is whether leaders of the nationalist Sinn Fein party are involved with the IRA. Unionists have stated that power sharing cannot persist if this is the case.
“The Unionists refuse to talk with the Nationalists until the intra-IRA murders stop and the IRA disbands entirely,” said student Faith Linehan, who is currently studying abroad in Belfast. “And the Nationalists won’t negotiate with the Unionists as long as the Unionists want to cut spending on welfare.”
“However, these things won’t happen because the Unionists are being pressured by London to cut spending on welfare, and the Nationalists have no incentive to disband the IRA,” Linehan said.
Even if the IRA merely existed as a criminal organization and not a military group, Roche explained, “that is unacceptable to unionists due to the perception of overlapping leadership between Sinn Fein and the IRA.”
In response to the speculation and current evidence, Northern Ireland’s Secretary of State has established an independent monitoring group to assess paramilitary organizations in the country. This assessment is designed to determine if the provisional IRA or other organizations are in violation of the Good Friday Agreement.
In addition to the other crises, the Northern Ireland Assembly’s First Minister, Peter Robinson, has resigned, along with all but one member of his party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). This has made political talks aimed at finding a solution difficult.
“All these conflicts over there are buried so deeply and are so entrenched in their society,” said Jack Knudsen, a University student who was on the Irish Studies team in the fall of 2014. “It’s very, very sad, especially because it seemed for a while like things were getting better. It seems now that more hostilities are coming to the surface.”
Cross-party discussions about finance, welfare and the existence of paramilitary organizations are expected to continue for the next six weeks.