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Accusations of IRA Activity Prompt Resignation of Northern Ireland’s First Minister

Amid allegations the IRA is still active in Northern Ireland, First Minister Peter Robinson resigned Thursday.

ANTRIM, NORTHERN IRELAND - APRIL 21:  Northern Ireland First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson at the launch of the Democratic Unionist Party Election Manifesto at Wrightbus, supplier of the London  Routemaster buses on April 21, 2015 in Antrim, Northern Ireland. Many political observers have predicted that the expected 8-10 DUP Westminster seats could have a key role in deciding who will form the next government if the general election results in a hung parliament. In anticipation of the important role the party may play the DUP has already outlined their demands from a potential government partner and hasn't ruled out working with Labour or the Conservatives.  (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
ANTRIM, NORTHERN IRELAND - APRIL 21: Northern Ireland First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson at the launch of the Democratic Unionist Party Election Manifesto at Wrightbus, supplier of the London Routemaster buses on April 21, 2015 in Antrim, Northern Ireland. Many political observers have predicted that the expected 8-10 DUP Westminster seats could have a key role in deciding who will form the next government if the general election results in a hung parliament. In anticipation of the important role the party may play the DUP has already outlined their demands from a potential government partner and hasn't ruled out working with Labour or the Conservatives. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

More than 17 years after the Good Friday agreement that ended the “Troubles” and brought peace to Northern Ireland, the already unstable province has new trouble on its hands: First Minister Peter Robinson announced he will step down Thursday amid allegations the Irish Republic Army, officially disarmed in 2005, is still active there.

As head of the pro-British Democratic Unionists, Robinson’s resignation was sparked by two murders: First, that of ex-IRA commander Gerard “Jock” Davison, and then what is a suspected retaliatory strike on Kevin McGuigan, another one-time IRA gunman thought to be responsible for Davison’s death. As former IRA members, McGuigan and Davison were one-time allies who reportedly had a falling-out, and their deaths have fueled speculation of rivalry within the ranks of the separatist militancy that is accused of continued activity, if only underground.

Robinson’s announcement Thursday came after his party, the largest in Northern Ireland’s assembly, lost a vote to suspend the assembly and hold emergency talks until McGuigan’s murder is resolved. Sixteen people have been arrested since his August death, and Unionists have accused the nationalist Sinn Fein party, which was once the legitimate political wing of the IRA, of privately maintaining the armed group’s structure despite promises it was dismantled in the 2005 peace agreement. If the IRA was involved in the murders, it would be a direct violation of the disarmament agreement in 2005.

Fears of IRA involvement were exacerbated when George Hamilton, the police chief in Northern Ireland, announced after the murders that he believed the IRA still maintains a structure. And the province’s already fragile government took an even bigger hit Wednesday, when Bobby Storey, a senior Sinn Fein member and former commander in the IRA, was arrested for his alleged involvement in the murders. Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams said in a statement that any allegations the IRA is still operating are completely inaccurate.

“The war is over,” Adams said. “The IRA is gone and not coming back.” But it was too late: Robinson said himself that Unionists were rapidly losing confidence in Sinn Fein’s denials that the murders were tied to the IRA.

For now, Robinson will be replaced by his finance minister, Arlene Foster, but every other minister belonging to his party will also resign. Because Democratic Unionists hold the majority in the assembly, this will leave Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government on the verge of collapse.

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers reiterated the danger of ridding the government of its ministers, saying it signaled serious dysfunction within the provincial government. “It is a sign of a complete breakdown in working relationships within the executive,” she said.

At Downing Street in London, a spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron said the British leader was very worried about Robinson’s decision to resign. But Cameron had not yet decided whether to intervene and call for the emergency talks Robinson demanded, the spokesman said.

“There are obviously now different people calling for different things, and the prime minister’s calls with the secretary of state and the first minister are an opportunity for us to consider what steps should be taken next,” his spokesman said.

Photo Credit: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

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