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Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald with DUP leader Arlene Foster at a vigil in Derry following the death of journalist Lyra McKee. PA Wire/PA Images
new talks

Fresh talks hope to revive power-sharing ... but marriage equality remains a major stumbling block

Sinn Féin has called on the UK and Irish governments to step in and take the reins if the new round of talks fail.

TWO WEEKS AFTER the priest at Lyra McKee’s funeral openly challenged politicians on the Stormont stalemate, resulting in a loud applause erupting around the Northern Ireland political leaders in the church, talks are to resume again. 

On Tuesday, a fresh round of talks aimed at reviving the power-sharing government at Stormont will take place. But will they succeed? That’s the big question.

It’s been over two years since the Northern Ireland institutions collapsed. With no functioning government, the North is effectively being run by unelected civil servants who are operating with limited resources.

Since the tragic death of Lyra, critics have called on politicians to get back around the table and sort it all out. 

In the last two years, there have been several rounds of talks to get the Northern Ireland Assembly back up and running, but they have all failed. 

Irish language and same-sex marriage

Sinn Féin and the DUP have failed to find a compromise on a number of outstanding issues including Irish language rights and the legalisation of same-sex marriage.

The closest both parties got to a deal was in February 2018. Sinn Féin claimed the deal was all but done, but the party leader Mary Lou McDonald claims that DUP leader Arlene Foster pulled the plug on the agreement because she could not get it past her own members. 

With Foster making clear that the party’s position on marriage equality has not changed, it is difficult to see where compromise will be found on that issue alone. 

March for marriage equality Protest to end Northern Ireland's ban on same-sex marriage in Belfast PA Archive / PA Images PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

When talks resume on Tuesday, it is understood that the agreement which was almost agreed to back in 2018 will be the starting point for the negotiations. 

The deal had a roadmap to how to handle the marriage equality issue, and was drafted to ensure that the DUP’s fingerprints wouldn’t be on it. 

It basically set out that Westminster would legislate for it – which would take the issue out of the hands of Sinn Féin and the DUP. 

At the time of the negotiations last year, there was to be a question tabled in Westminster about whether the Tories would be given a free vote, and it set out a process that would have allowed Labour to put forward a piece of legislation that would have extended marriage equality to the North.

Sinn Féin believed it was the only way to get marriage equality over the line because a deal with the DUP on the issue was never going to be on the cards.

That roadmap would have gone through, according to Sinn Féin sources, who state that the DUP acquiesced to that solution as it meant their fingerprints weren’t on it. 

The deal on the table also contained what has been described by some Sinn Féiners as an “ugly path” to achieving an Irish Language Act.

The specific stumbling block in Northern Ireland around the Irish language surrounds the introduction of an Irish language Act (Acht na Gaeilge) which would give Irish equal status with English.

The legislation would allow for the use of Irish in courts, in the Assembly and for use by state bodies including the police. It would also see the appointment of an Irish language commissioner, the establishment of designated Gaelteacht areas in the North, the right for education through Irish and bilingual signage on public buildings and road signage. 

Sinn Féin sees it as a litmus test for equality rights of the nationalist community being recognised. 

But that deal never came to pass, and we are where we are. 

north-15-390x285 A standing ovation breaks out at Lyra McKee's funeral as the priest challenges politicians about the Northern Ireland stalemate. Screengrab / Sky News Screengrab / Sky News / Sky News

Since then, with the DUP supporting a Tory government in Westminster, all the focus has been on Brexit.

But the death of Lyra changed all that. With the spontaneous standing ovation at St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast last month, pressure was ratcheted up on the politicians to do something, or at least be seen to do something. 

That said, the soundings for success have not been good.

Sinn Féin said this week that the timing for the talks is not ideal, citing Brexit and upcoming elections as significant challenges to finding a resolution.

Chances of success

McDonald said her party will enter into the negotiations “with every ounce of energy that we can” but in the same breath said she had to be “realistic”. 

“I think it’s a challenging time, obviously there are elections North and South the issue of Brexit is ever with us so there is no doubt that there is awareness across politics that these are challenging times but at the same time we cannot simply stand still so there is a need for action,” said McDonald, adding that Sinn Féin will give the talks their full attention. 

“I want it to work, I want these talks to work but if they don’t well the governments having convened the talks need to have a Plan B and they need to be clear that if the DUP if politicians persist in failing to answer these questions as the co-guarantors of the agreements they have to intervene.”

All this was said in the same week that Foster said that her community cannot be left with nothing. “It can’t be a five-nil situation,” she said. 

Londonderry unrest Mary Lou McDonald and Arlene Foster at the vigil in Creggan after the death of Lyra McKee.

While critics of the delays are fed up with the point-scoring between the two parties, it has been reported that they have been “bounced” into talks by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and UK Prime Minister Theresa May.

McDonald has denied this, adding that a parallel process to sorting out the issues will also not work. There have been suggestions that the two parties should get back into Stormont and while in power deal with the issues of marriage equality and the Irish language during separate talks.

But she said her message to both governments is clear. 

Calls for a Plan B

The two governments cannot just cross their fingers and hope for the best with these talks. The public does not want another process of endless talks and no resolution. And in the case there is a stalemate yet again, a Plan B will be needed. 

What does a Plan B look like? It is one that Sinn Féin will not find easy to swallow, but it is “working the Good Friday Agreement” as one senior party source stated. 

It would involve the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference being held (this is a mechanism contained in the Good Friday Agreement) and as co-guarantors of the agreement, the two governments would address the issues the DUP and Sinn Féin cannot find an agreement on – namely the Irish Language Act and marriage equality.

The agreement provides that the Irish government may put forward views and proposals on such issues, and also provides that the conference may consider all-island cross-border co-operation on non-devolved issues. 

Responsibility would be escalated to the two governments, and result in Britain having to lift the load with Westminster legislating on the outstanding issues. 

Tánaiste Simon Coveney has previously indicated to Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley that “it would be appropriate to convene the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference as part of the work by both Governments, as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, to chart a way beyond the current impasse”.

And if all else fails? Could there be an independent mediator flown in to be the middleman? George Mitchell, who was influential in the Good Friday Agreement has been a name that has been bandied about in the past. 

Sinn Féin hasn’t dismissed the idea and are not against the idea of an independent facilitator but it’s understood that the DUP are not very open to the idea. 

If that was to happen it would be a game changer in the Northern Ireland political statement. But as it stands, another round of talks is to begin, the leaders have said they are “hopeful”, but it all comes down to whether the nettles are grasped. 

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