Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government was brought to the brink of crisis when the Ulster Unionist Party announced its intention to withdraw over claims that the IRA remains active.
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said he had recommended that his party pull out from the five-party ruling coalition as a result of allegations that the Republican terror group remains active following the murder of one of its former members this month.
The UUP has only one minister out of 13 in Northern Ireland’s governing Executive so its move will not immediately end the coalition. But it will put significant pressure on the Democratic Unionist Party, the largest unionist party in the Stormont assembly, to follow suit and end its participation in the coalition with Sinn Fein and other parties.
Such a development would automatically bring down Ulster’s devolved government.
Mr Nesbitt, whose party’s ruling executive is expected to endorse his recommendation at a meeting on Saturday, said there had been a “breakdown of trust” between Unionists and Sinn Fein. He added: “We are in a bad place but this can be fixed. But the IRA need to go away and stop terrorising their communities.”
The likely withdrawal of the UUP follows a statement from the chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, George Hamilton, that the IRA still exists and some of its members were suspected of involvement in the murder of Kevin McGuigan, a former member of the terror group. But Mr Hamilton added there was no evidence that the killing was sanctioned by the upper echelons of the IRA and the organisation was not engaged in terrorism.
The assertion of the IRA’s continued existence was strongly disputed by Sinn Fein, whose president Gerry Adams insisted the group has “gone and [is] not coming back”.
Father-of-nine Mr McGuigan, 53, was shot dead close to his home in east Belfast two weeks ago in what police believe is likely to have been a reprisal killing following the murder in May of prominent former IRA commander Gerard “Jock” Davison.
Mr Adams said this weekend that the Republican movement was committed to peace and the armed group had no reason to exist. But Mr Nesbitt said his party had “no trust” in Sinn Fein, adding: “The situation can be fixed but we need some clarity about the IRA and its command structure.”
Martin McGuinness, the Sinn Fein deputy first minister of the Executive, accused the UUP of playing party politics. He said on Twitter: “This decision by the UUP is more about inter Unionist rivalry than their and others feigned concern about our unequivocal commitment to peace.”
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