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Key questions on the political crisis at Stormont

DUP leader Peter Robinson and assembly members Arlene Foster and Simon Hamilton at Stormont Castle. Picture by Mal McCann

THE British government has asked for an assessment of paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland.

Here are some key questions in the latest move to help save powersharing at Stormont.

1 Why has the British government acted now?

The IRA was supposed to have gone away a decade ago after it destroyed arms and declared an end to its campaign.

It gave space for non-violent politics to develop and Northern Ireland's devolved powersharing administration between unionists and nationalists has been running since 2007. But the killing of Kevin McGuigan by members of the IRA and dissident republicans opposed to peace has led police to acknowledge that the IRA still exists - creating the most serious crisis in the institutions yet.

The British and Irish governments have called cross-party talks but unionists have been refusing to take part until the issue of paramilitarism is addressed and Sinn Fein accepts that the IRA still exists.

Sinn Fein contains many former members of the IRA and unionists have questioned their credibility in government at Stormont while they claim more questions remain to be answered by republicans.

The government was under pressure from unionists and the Irish government to act on paramilitarism. The largest party at Stormont, the DUP, agreed to attend Monday's discussions after Theresa Villiers' announcement.

2  Who will carry out the assessment?

The security agencies - MI5 has responsibility for national security and a large base in Northern Ireland - and police. It will be independently reviewed and checked by three individuals appointed by the Northern Ireland Secretary of State.

The intention is for the findings to be ready in time to inform the parties' discussions on paramilitarism and a row over the Stormont budget including cuts and welfare reform, which Sinn Fein has been refusing to implement.

3  What happens now?

Intensive talks called by the British and Irish governments are due aiming to address any lingering paramilitarism. Some political leaders have put the timeframe at about four weeks.

4 What are the parties talking about?

Loyalist and republican paramilitarism and the possibility of establishing an independent body to monitor the ceasefires similar to that which existed until 2011.

Budgetary matters, which had already brought the powersharing Executive to the verge of financial ruin. Sinn Fein opposes welfare changes which it says will hurt the most vulnerable but the British government believes will encourage people back to work. As a result of the stalemate the administration is paying "fines" imposed on the amount the British government pays Stormont to run public services in Northern Ireland, leaving a £600 million black hole in the budget and the prospect of running out of money later this autumn.

Other issues outstanding from last year's unimplemented Stormont House Agreement, which pledged a range of bodies to investigate the legacy of thousands of Troubles killings and a number of other measures.

5  What happened to powersharing?

The departments of health and social care; social development; enterprise trade and investment; and regional development are effectively rudderless after the UUP and DUP resignations. Some DUP ministers have been intermittently carrying out departmental tasks and the party intends a series of procedural moves designed to prevent the institutions from collapsing completely.

DUP leader Peter Robinson appointed Arlene Foster acting first minister, avoiding automatic collapse of the institutions and ensuring republicans cannot take decisions detrimental to Northern Ireland. But his promise that it would not be business as usual while issues of paramilitarism were addressed appears to have been fulfilled.

Mr Robinson also called an end to meetings of Stormont Executive, because it must be convened jointly by him and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, and said there would be no formal meetings between Northern Ireland ministers and their counterparts from the Republic.

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