There were calls on Foster to quit and mounting pressure on her to do so from Stormont's opposition parties after it was claimed that Dr Andrew Crawford, her special advisor, had not received correspondence relating to concerns over the RHI scheme. There were public protests in Belfast and in Derry calling for Foster to resign as First Minister.
Recall of Northern Ireland Assembly
On 19 December 2016, the Northern Ireland Assembly was recalled from recess in order for Foster to give a statement to the chamber regarding the scandal. The opposition parties submitted a motion to exclude Foster from office for six months.
There was disagreement in the chamber as it turned out that Foster did not have Martin McGuinness' approval for the statement to be read. In Northern Ireland, the First Minister and deputy First Minister are joint roles. MLAs tried to raise points of order with the Speaker, Robin Newton (DUP), who did not allow them to speak. MLAs walked out of the chamber in protest and Newton suspended the sitting for 30 minutes.[b]
As the Speaker allowed Foster to address the chamber in her capacity as First Minister without the consent of the deputy First Minister, all other parties walked out of the chamber in protest at the beginning of her statement. She gave the statement with only her own party present and, as a result, she only received questions from her party colleagues.
Vote of no confidence
The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), Alliance Party, People Before Profit (PBP), Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), and the Green Party signed a ministerial exclusion motion under Section 30 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which would formally remove Foster from office. Although the opposition had a majority in the subsequent motion of no confidence, the motion did not pass because of Stormont's cross-community procedures. This section was intended for removing politicians from office if they became involved in paramilitary activities.
Colum Eastwood, SDLP leader, said that Foster "should follow the precedent set by her predecessor and resign to restore confidence in the office of first minister while these questions hang over her". UUP leader Mike Nesbitt called for the MLAs to "come together and protect the reputation of the institutions".
After three hours of debate, a division was called and MLAs voted on the motion. Of the 75 members voting, 39 voted to exclude her from office, while 36 MLAs voted against. Although a 52% majority had thus supported the vote of no confidence, under Stormont rules, the vote was a that required the majority of nationalist MLAs and unionist MLAs to support it. 100% of nationalist MLAs, but only 29% of unionist MLAs, voted to exclude Foster, meaning that Foster survived the vote of no confidence. Sinn Féin's MLAs did not vote. As the DUP is the largest unionist party in Stormont, it effectively has a veto on cross-community issues, meaning that some of Foster's own MLAs would have to vote against her for the vote to succeed.
Sinn Féin announced their intention to table another motion in January 2017, which would call on Foster to "step aside" whilst an independent inquiry takes place, but Foster rejected any suggestion of her stepping aside. After the vote, Sinn Féin announced that they would put a motion to the Assembly in January 2017 that would call for Foster to step aside from her role. Northern Irish legislation allows for a first minister to step aside for six weeks. Former First Minister Peter Robinson and former deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness have done this in the past.
Impartiality of the Speaker
The constitutional impartiality of the Speaker was called into question by opposition parties because he allowed Foster to make a ministerial statement without agreement with Sinn Féin. As Foster and McGuinness hold equal roles, they both must agree on issues before acting in their capacities as First and deputy First Ministers. Newton, who is also a DUP MLA, said he took Speaker's independence "extremely seriously". MLAs complained that he had "undermined the principles of power-sharing by permitting the first minister to speak without the agreement of the deputy first minister". Sinn Féin were equally incensed by the Speaker's blatant politicking making his position "untenable" as a result of the "shambolic proceedings". Newton also faced calls to resign from the UUP and SDLP. Sinn Féin announced that they would lodge a motion of no confidence in the speaker. Declan Kearney, the party's national chairperson, called for Newton to resign with immediate effect.
On 16 January 2017, the DUP launched a petition of concern in the Assembly to protect the Speaker from Sinn Féin's motion of no confidence. 30 MLAs are required to sign a petition of concern and, when a petition of concern is deployed, any votes taken are subject to a cross-community vote. As the DUP hold the majority of unionist seats, they effectively blocked the motion from passing. In protest Sinn Féin retracted their motion of no confidence calling the abuse of the petition of concern "insulting". Sinn Féin MLA Conor Murphy alleged that the DUP "invoked the Petition of Concern to protect the Speaker" and said that "the DUP are corrupting the institutions in their own interests and against the wishes of the general public".
Resignation of Martin McGuinness
Martin McGuinness, pictured in 2009, was the deputy First Minister from 2007 until his resignation in January 2017
On 8 January 2017, Gerry Adams, Sinn Féin President, called on Foster to step aside and said that her refusal to do so was "unacceptable". He hinted that Martin McGuinness could resign over the scandal. Under Stormont rules, a resignation of either the First Minister or deputy First Minister automatically means that the whole office ceases to exist.
The following day, McGuinness travelled to Stormont to announce his resignation as deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. McGuinness was seriously ill and travelled from Altnagelvin Area Hospital in Derry to sign his resignation letter. His resignation meant that Arlene Foster could not continue in her position as First Minister. Standing orders allowed Sinn Féin seven days to nominate another deputy First Minister to restore the Executive Office. If Sinn Féin failed to nominate, the Northern Ireland Assembly would be dissolved and the Northern Ireland Executive would collapse and a snap election would be called by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. McGuinness said that Foster had a "clear conflict of interest" and it "was the right time to call a halt to the DUP's arrogance". He further accused the DUP of refusing to accept demands "for robust action and responsibility".
As Sinn Féin did not nominate a replacement for McGuinness, James Brokenshire automatically assumed control of Northern Ireland in his role as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on 16 January 2017. Brokenshire was obliged to call an election within a "reasonable time period", which he announced for 2 March 2017. Per the Stormont House Agreement, the 2017 Assembly election elected only 90 MLAs.
Under power sharing rules in Northern Ireland, Foster was unable to continue in her role as First Minister while there was a vacancy for the deputy First Minister. This meant that Foster lost her role when McGuinness' resignation came into effect. The Executive Office therefore became vacant on 9 January 2017.
There were allegations from the DUP that McGuinness' resignation was due to his ill health, and purely for "party political reasons" according to Foster.
McGuinness died on 21 March 2017, two months after his resignation.
British and Irish governments' intervention
On 10 January 2017, it was revealed that British Prime Minister Theresa May and Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny had a telephone conversation to discuss the "ongoing crisis" at Stormont. The British and Irish governments "urged" Sinn Féin and the DUP to enter talks to resolve the dispute.
Irish Foreign Minister Charles Flanagan spoke to Brokenshire regarding the situation and Flanagan urged all sides "to act responsibly to protect the institutions of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement".
Brokenshire gave a statement to the House of Commons and described the situation as "grave". He said that the British Government is treating it "with the utmost seriousness". Brokenshire said that there was a widely held view that an election "will change nothing" and it will "threaten the continuity of the devolved institutions".
Brokenshire convened crisis talks at Stormont with the political parties. McGuinness led talks on behalf of Sinn Féin but, in a statement after the meeting, Flanagan said that he believed the Secretary of State (Brokenshire) would have "no choice but to call an election".
Political reaction to McGuinness' resignation
Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)
Shortly after McGuinness resigned, Foster called his actions "non-principled" and "purely political". In his resignation, McGuinness said that there would "be no return to the status quo". Foster said that she was "disappointed that Martin McGuinness has chosen to take the position he has today". She said that, due to his actions, "we will have no government and no way to resolve the RHI problems". She said that what annoys Sinn Féin "the most" was that the DUP will "always stand up for unionism and stand up for what is best in Northern Ireland".
Foster said that calls for her resignation are purely "misogynistic". After the resignation, she also called for a public inquiry to be held under the Inquiries Act 2005. She said that, if the election did happen, it would be a "brutal election" and said that Northern Ireland would be "in for a period of direct rule". She said that an inquiry could happen without the approval of Sinn Féin, who pressured Foster to step aside due to her "conflict of interest". She said an inquiry, for her, would be "vitally important from a political perspective but also fundamental for me on a personal basis".
Sinn Féin's Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir said Foster's plan for an inquiry was not credible and "it would be a laughing stock if we now had an inquiry that was set up at her behest".
The SDLP's leader Colum Eastwood welcomed the resignation of McGuinness and said that the DUP governed "disgracefully and it has extended well beyond the leadership of Arlene Foster". The SDLP said that Sinn Féin were "jointly responsible" and that the public "also understand that there is one reason for this potential election – Arlene Foster's arrogance".
In response to Foster's threat of direct rule returning to the province, the SDLP leader called for "joint London and Dublin rule" if attempts to establish devolution fail. He said there could be "no return to direct rule with London-based ministers in charge of the region".
The UUP's leader Mike Nesbitt said that McGuinness' resignation "let the DUP off the hook". He said that resigning "was not the way to resolve the RHI scandal". Nesbitt said that there was an onus on Claire Sugden, the independent Justice Minister, to call a public inquiry and it is "farcical" to move "straight to an election" without having the "facts of the RHI debacle exposed".
Alliance's Naomi Long said that DUP arrogance "recklessly endangered" the political institutions. She also said that Foster's "inability to swallow pride" and her "belligerent attitude" placed the DUP on a collision course with Sinn Féin. She called on Foster to step aside so that Sinn Féin can re-nominate a deputy First Minister before the 7-day period runs out. She said that "the public have a right to expect better".
Possible impact on Brexit
During the weekly Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, Angus Robertson of the Scottish National Party (SNP) questioned whether the Brexit process would be delayed by the political crisis in Northern Ireland. According to the timetable for Brexit, Article 50 would be triggered by the end of March. Robertson asked May whether she would delay Brexit so that the Northern Irish government could be consulted as she "pledged to consult with devolved administrations".
May responded to the SNP's question by stating "we can find a resolution to the political situation in Northern Ireland" and that "it is still the case that ministers are in place, and that obviously there are executives in place, and we are able to take the views of the Northern Ireland".
Líofa bursary controversy
On 23 December 2016, the DUP Minister for Communities Paul Givan removed £50,000 of funding from the Líofa Gaeltacht Bursary scheme. The money funded annual trips for 100 young people in Northern Ireland to the Donegal Gaeltacht where they could attend Irish language classes. McGuinness said the DUP's decision to remove funding from the Líofa budget was another factor for his resignation.
Gerry Adams called Givan an "ignoramus" and called the decision "ignorant". Givan came under pressure to reinstate the funding and he said that the original decision to cut the funding was "not political". His decision spurred protests outside the headquarters of the Department for Communities in Belfast. As the protests were happening, Givan tweeted that he reinstated the funding after he "found the necessary funding". Furthermore, he said he "was not prepared to allow Sinn Féin to use that £50,000 as a political weapon against us [the DUP] in the upcoming election as tool to rally their troops, and so I've taken that away from them". Givan's decision was welcomed by Irish language groups, but they insisted on an Irish language act to be a feature of any crisis talks.