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Uncertainty in N. Ireland as deputy leader quits

January 9, 2017

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has stepped down after accusing leader Arlene Foster of not respecting the wishes of Northern Irish voters. The majority in the region voted to remain in the European Union.

Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister
Image: Reuters/C. Kilcoyne

Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland's deputy leader, stepped down on Monday amid a bitter row with First Minister Arlene Foster. The move will likely trigger fresh elections in the region, creating uncertainly about the country's position ahead of Brexit talks.

The discord between nationalist McGuinness and pro-British unionist Foster revolves around the first minister's refusal to temporarily step aside for the duration of an inquiry into a failed green-energy program she implemented when she was enterprise minister.

As part of the scheme, businesses were offered a rebate if they burned wood pellets instead of fossil fuels. However, the government failed to put a cap on the amount of incentives a business could claim. According to McGuinness' Sinn Fein party, this could cost Northern Ireland millions.

Brexit baggage

On top of the botched project, McGuinness accused Foster's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of not treating Sinn Fein with "equality and respect" since the UK's referendum vote to leave the European Union.

"Sinn Fein will not tolerate the arrogance of Arlene Foster and the DU. We now need an election to allow the people to make their own judgment," he said.

During last June's referendum, 56 percent of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. Foster voted alongside the pro-Brexit camp, though the outcome is likely to cause major issues for her region due to the possibility of reinstating border checkpoints along the frontier with the Republic of Ireland.

McGuinness had called on Foster to also represent the wishes of the majority of Northern Irish voters who wanted to stay a part of the EU. The first minister responded that she was also beholden to respect the wishes of the 52 percent of UK which voted to leave.

The deputy leader's departure is likely to prompt a new election because of a tenuous 1998 power-sharing deal between nationalists and unionists, which brought an end to three decades of bloodshed that killed over 3,600 people. Another sticking point between Foster and McGuinness had been the latter's insistence on renegotiating the terms of this deal.

es/cmk (AP, Reuters)