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Stormont begins to run out of options

There was a time when the proposed withdrawal of one party from the power-sharing administration at Stormont would have been widely regarded as representing a crisis of considerable proportions.

It is a measure of the decline in the credibility of the Northern Ireland executive that yesterday's announcement by the Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt was greeted with a mixture of cynicism and apathy in many quarters.

Mr Nesbitt's recommendation, which seems certain to be ratified by his party at the weekend, was still a striking development which will increase the sense that our devolved structures are destined for some form of suspension.

However, it should also be accepted that the Stormont institutions were in deep trouble long before the evil and vicious murders of Gerard Davison and Kevin McGuigan put the spotlight firmly on the status of the IRA over recent weeks.

While the welfare reform debate also resulted in major recriminations, the main problem was that relationships between the two largest parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, had already largely broken down and very little serious business could be completed at Parliament Buildings.

In those circumstances, it was almost inevitable that the related killings of Mr Davison and Mr McGuigan, both former senior IRA figures in Belfast, would become another major source of tension between unionists and nationalists.

When police said that the IRA continued to exist, although there was no evidence that the McGuigan assassination had been sanctioned by its hierarchy, the Ulster Unionist Party quickly concluded that it could no longer sit in government with Sinn Fein.

There will be pressure on the DUP to follow suit, bringing about the immediate collapse of Stormont, but the central question is what such a move would actually achieve ?

Despite the official report of the Independent Monitoring Commission stating back in 2008 stated that `members and former members of all paramilitary groups remain very active in non-terrorist types of crime', there were no unionist resignations from the executive on that occasion.

The priority for all our politicians should be to demonstrate that they are capable of ensuring the Northern Ireland Assembly maintains the respect of citizens in all parts of our divided society.

If what is effectively an enforced coalition between five or even four parties cannot deliver such an outcome, then the possibility of Alliance and the SDLP joining the Ulster Unionists to create a recognised parliamentary opposition should certainly not be excluded.

Unfortunately, if every other option does not prove viable, it is starting to look as though we are moving ever closer to an indefinite period of direct rule from Westminster. The huge pity is that many ordinary voters will no longer care either way.

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