19 Jan 2017

Martin McGuinness bows out

Martin McGuinness’ decision to stand down from the Northern Ireland Assembly robs the power-sharing institutions of one of their most important and unlikely defenders. 

BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - JANUARY 16: Former Deputy Northern Ireland First Minister Martin McGuinness walks through the Great Hall at Stormont after failing to nominate a candidate for the role of Deputy First Minister on January 16, 2017 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland politics have been plunged into crisis following the RHI Cash for Ash controversy, a renewable heat scheme introduced by the then DETI minister Arlene Foster which could see the Northern Ireland taxpayer facing a bill of over £400 million pounds due to a flaw in the scheme. The resignation of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness last week and a failure to re-nominate a Sinn Fein candidate for the position by 5pm today will trigger a snap election. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

 Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams were the duo that led Republicanism in from the cold and ended the decades-long violent campaign of bombings and shootings. 

Central to their strategy was a dogged and unrelenting fixedness to the same strictly controlled political line. If there is one area where observers think they detect a cigarette paper can be inserted between the two men it is the strength of their support for the Stormont institutions. 

Mr McGuinness’ role bringing Sinn Fein grassroots along with him has been crucial in getting power-sharing up and running (or plodding, if you prefer).

One UK government source said that Whitehall was hoping he would continue to play a role trying to keep Republicans supportive of power-sharing as attempts resume after the elections to get the institutions working again.  Mr McGuinness confirmed he’d remain part of the Sinn Fein negotiating team and a member of the party’s executive. 

 Mr McGuinness has been ill with what he called “a very serious medical condition” for some time but has been trying to stick to his routine of sleeping in his own bed in Derry while carrying out his duties in Stormont. That’s meant 5am starts and late finishes that, on top of medical treatment, have taken their toll on his health. 

Conor Murphy had long been thought the most likely successor as senior Sinn Fein figure in Northern Ireland but there are strong suggestions that Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) Michelle O’Neill could be announced as Mr McGuinness’ successor in the coming days.  

The plan had long been for Mr McGuinness and Gerry Adams to retire at the same time, perhaps later this year or some time next year. Instead, the collapse of the institutions and the calling of elections in Northern Ireland has pushed Mr McGuinness out of politics ahead of his close ally.

He said he simply didn’t feel he could cope physically with the demands of the job.

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