LONDON – The government of Northern Ireland is in a deepening crisis and the first minister, Peter Robinson, has stepped down along with most of his Democratic Unionist ministers. Here's a look at the situation:
WHAT IS THE STATUS OF THE CATHOLIC-PROTESTANT GOVERNMENT?
The power-sharing government continues to exist, barely. Robinson left one minister in place and made her temporary first minister. The other parties, including Sinn Fein, are still in the government, but its executive functions have effectively been halted. The parties have refused to adjourn the government, so it is still in place, but in a badly weakened form.
WHAT'S THE PROBLEM?
The Assembly has not been functioning properly for more than a year, in part because of Sinn Fein's refusal to accept British-mandated welfare cuts, but the current problem stems from the murder last month of a former Irish Republican Army figure, Kevin McGuigan.
Police in Northern Ireland say IRA dissidents were involved in the apparent revenge killing, infuriating Protestant politicians who say they cannot conduct routine business with Sinn Fein — the political party with strong ties to the IRA — if the IRA is involved in murder and mayhem. The IRA is supposed to have decommissioned its weapons and renounced violence as its former leaders pursue a political strategy through Sinn Fein.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
British Prime Minister David Cameron says he expects the parties to resume negotiations Monday in search of a settlement. Leaders hope a cooling off period over the weekend may help bring the government back from the brink, since the establishment of the Catholic-Protestant government was one of the main accomplishments of the 1998 peace agreement.
The British government has the ability to suspend the government and resume direct control of Northern Ireland but it has not done so yet. Some believe that step is likely if no progress is made at the start of next week.
IF THE GOVERNMENT COLLAPSES, IS THAT THE END OF THE LANDMARK 1998 PEACE AGREEMENT?
The collapse would mark a serious setback but not the end of the peace process. Earlier governments also collapsed, leading to periods of direct British rule from London, but the power-sharing model has always been re-established, even though the process has sometimes taken years. The implementation of the accord remains a work in progress with serious flaws but few expect a return to widespread violence.