If not Armageddon, it looks like limbo

I’m hearing that Martin McGuinness will in effect pull the plug on powersharing next week by facing the DUP with an ultimatum they can’t accept on justice and policing. The uncompromising tone of Gerry Adams’s announcement of the postponment of their Friday ard comhairle due to bad weather seems only to have delayed the grim message.

So Sinn Fein will give the DUP no quarter over the Robinson crisis and will rather seek to exploit it. That is the depth of the chasm between them. They will insist they’ve hung about long enough and have come under real pressure from their supporters.

On the other side, the trigger statement that counts is kingmaker and chief whip Lord Morrow’s, rejecting the transfer of justice and policing powers “in the life of this Assembly.” If these rumours are true, whether Peter Robinson clings on or a new DUP leader is elected. ( Dodds favourite, Foster to balance the ticket) matters little.

A McGuinness resignation or a Robinson resignation plus a Dodds nomination is likely to bring the Assembly down within seven days of the first move. By law an Assembly election follows within six weeks , but what would be the point? Unionism faces a three way split and their nightmare of Sinn Fein as the largest party could very well come to pass.

Unionism could not live with the huge if largely symbolic victory of a Sinn Fein First Minister. What the parties care about most now is not the Assembly’s survival but their prospects in the next election. So beyond the increasingly thin chances of the status quo surviving, the options are:

1. Go through the democratic motions of an Assembly election at the end of February/beginning of March – a few weeks before the Westminster general election. To what end?

2. British govenment rushes in a one day Act to restore their powers to suspend the Assembly abolished under the St Andrew’s Agreement, or devises another way short of repealing the 1998 and 2006 NI Acts, in order to halt the election.

3. Launch high pressure British-Irish negotiations to include J&P in a devolution package – take it or leave it.

4. Abolish the second Assembly and institute green-tinged direct rule.

No negotiations to take place until well after the British general election.

And all this, when a large majority of the people want devolution to succeed.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London