Jeffrey Donaldson said the bitter political row between his party and its long-term partner in government, Sinn Féin, is unlikely to be resolved without a lengthy talks process, following the looming snap election.
The DUP MP also questioned whether the existing mandatory coalition power-sharing arrangements could ever be revived, and said his party could now press for major reform and the introduction of a system of voluntary coalition: “My own sense of where we are is that we are looking at a prolonged period of direct rule because I don’t see these issues being resolved in a talks process in a short space of time.
“I think that Sinn Féin have dealt a serious blow to power-sharing and I think the prospect of a mandatory coalition being restored has been greatly diminished, so if we are going to have another talks process, then I think unionists will want to be looking at how Stormont operates and whether we should be moving towards our objective of a voluntary coalition form of government.”
If the main unionist and republican parties are returned as the two largest parties after an election, but their row over a renewable heating scandal is still unresolved, along with a range of other political disputes, it is unlikely that a new ruling executive could be formed.
That raises the real prospect of the devolved power-sharing institutions being suspended and a return to direct rule from Westminster.
Emergency legislation would be required in London to enable Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire to put Stormont into cold storage.
Mr McGuinness’s decision to walk away after 10 years of sharing power with the DUP came as First Minister Arlene Foster refused to stand aside to facilitate a probe into the ill-fated RHI — the so-called “cash for ash” furore.
Mr Donaldson claimed observers would be “bewildered” at Sinn Féin’s move and said the party had “abandoned” its republican voters: “At a time when we face enormous decisions about our future, with Brexit and the way this will shape the lives of every single citizen in Northern Ireland for years to come, it is surprising that Sinn Féin have decided to abandon power-sharing and therefore to greatly diminish any influence that they might have over these decisions.
“Sinn Féin don’t take their seats at Westminster so they will have no influence there on the decisions that are going to be taken about Brexit and the future of our relationship with the EU and with the Republic of Ireland, whereas the DUP will have enormous influence with our eight seats in a parliament where the government has a small majority.”
Mr McGuinness’s resignation spelt the end of Mrs Foster’s current tenure in the job. He denied his health problems, for which he is undergoing intensive treatment, influenced his move.
While the DUP and Sinn Féin were in agreement on the terms of a potential investigation into RHI, the sticking point was the position of Mrs Foster when the probe got under way.