Stormont Crisis – Sinn Fein, Robinson Clash

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By John Coulter, Irish Political Journalist

ANOTHER Stormont crisis looms in the North, but is this latest ‘storm’ merely clever sabre rattling or the warning bells for meltdown?

Newly installed Democratic Unionist Party chief Peter Robinson could lose up to 15 Assembly seats if Sinn Fein’s bluff is called and Northern voters face a July poll, a key Unionist strategist said last night.

What should have been a mere formality at Stormont on Thursday has now become a ‘right to the wire’ crisis threatening to destabilise the entire Irish peace process.

Under Assembly rules, Robinson – who succeeded Ian Paisley senior as DUP boss at the weekend – and Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness should be nominated jointly for the posts of First and deputy First Ministers in the power-sharing Executive.

However, Sinn Fein has hinted it will not nominate McGuinness because of DUP foot dragging over policing and justice, an Irish Language Act and the Maze Stadium.

Sinn Fein wants policing powers restored to Stormont and the introduction of an Irish Language Act as soon as possible.

Republicans also want the Robinson camp to commit to a massive sports stadium at the former Maze prison, which would also include a museum to inmates – including the 10 Republicans who died in the 1981 hunger strike.

If Robinson and McGuinness are not nominated, the Assembly will have about a week to formally sort out the crisis before Northern Secretary Shaun Woodward would step in, suspend the Assembly, and call a fresh Stormont poll.

This could fall right in the teeth of the traditional loyalist and Orange marching season when sectarian tensions are normally at a peak. An election could push those tensions to boiling point.

The Unionist strategist said: ‘There are two key factors in play now. Sinn Fein knows the DUP wants an election like a hole in the head.

‘Given the impact of what happened in the Dromore by-election in a safe DUP constituency, if that was repeated across Northern Ireland, the Robinson camp could lose up to 15 seats, either back to the UUP, or to nationalists on a split Unionist vote.

‘The hard reality is, the DUP still is unsure how to deal with MEP Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice.

‘The other factor is that Sinn Fein views the DUP as getting too big for its boots, and an election would bring the new Robinson leadership down a peg or two.

‘Sinn Fein has wanted action on policing, the Irish language and the Maze but the DUP, to them, doesn’t seem to want to budge.’