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Why have parties in the North failed to agree a deal to restore Stormont?

Before Christmas, there had been hopes of a breakthrough in talks.

Pre-Christmas talks to restore Stormont have so far failed to yield results.
Pre-Christmas talks to restore Stormont have so far failed to yield results.
Image: Niall Carson/PA Wire/PA Images

IT’S NEARLY THREE years since power-sharing collapsed in Northern Ireland and so far talks have failed to get Stormont back up and running again. 

Hopes of a pre-Christmas deal between Sinn Féin, the DUP and the other parties in the North came to nothing, with Arlene Foster’s party blamed by both the UK and Irish government for failing to come to an agreement.

With the deadline of the 13 January – when assembly elections are scheduled to take place – looming, why can’t parties in the North come to an agreement? 

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Power-sharing collapsed in January 2017 amid a row about a botched green energy scheme.

Sinn Fein had demanded that DUP leader and then first minister Arlene Foster step down temporarily to facilitate an investigation into her handling of the ill-fated Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme – better known as “cash for ash”. 

When she refused, Sinn Féin deputy first minister Martin McGuinness resigned – a move that pulled down power sharing. 

The row over the RHI scheme destroyed relations between the DUP and Sinn Féin, sparking further disputes over issues that had, until that stage at least, not threatened the stability of the executive.

A wrangle over an Irish Language Act – backed by Sinn Féin and largely opposed by the DUP – and the region’s ban on same-sex marriage soon emerged as further roadblocks in the path of a return to devolution.

While the RHI scheme hasn’t remained as politically sensitive an issue, a public inquiry report into the botched scheme is due in early 2020 and could pose some difficulties for Foster. 

What’s changed?

Since the collapse of power-sharing, there have been a few moments when a return to Stormont had seemed likely. 

The murder of journalist Lyra McKee in April by the New IRA, which caused shock across the North, briefly raised hopes that the tragedy could bring the parties together. 

However, talks came to nothing and progress largely stalled between then and December as Brexit consumed the political energies of all parties in Ireland and the UK. 

However, with Boris Johnson having secured a Brexit deal with the EU, as well as a comfortable majority in the UK election this month, attention has turned back to the North. 

ulster-powersharing Tánaiste Simon Coveney believes that Stormont can be restored before the January deadline. Source: David Young/PA Wire/PA Images

The results of the general election in the North provided a fresh impetus to both Sinn Féin and the DUP to get round the negotiating table. The DUP, which lost two MPs including deputy leader Nigel Dodds, had a disastrous election. Sinn Féin, while it did less badly, saw its vote share collapse across the North, with the party’s candidate in the Derry seat of Foyle trounced by the SDLP. 

Many have interpreted the outcome as the public judgment on the two largest parties’ failure to restore powersharing – an issue that dominated conversations on the doorsteps in the build up to the election. 

The election also provided further evidence of a shift towards more centre-ground politics in Northern Ireland – a trend borne out by another positive showing for the cross-community Alliance Party. 

Anger among the public has also been fuelled by a crisis in the North’s health system and strikes by staff.

The mood music for a return to talks was also there before the election. At the DUP party conference, which took place in the weeks before polling day, Foster sounded less dogmatic on issues like the Irish language. 

“If we can find a way to craft language and culture laws that facilitates those who speak the language, but does not inappropriately infringe on or threaten others, the DUP will not be found wanting,” she said

On election night, Jeffrey Donaldson – who was appointed the leader of the party in the House of Commons in the wake of Dodds’ defeat – also used his victory speech to insist that the parties should get back to the assembly. 

Major obstacles 

Same-sex marriage has effectively been taken off the table as a consequence of legislation passed by MPs at Westminster earlier this year that ended the prohibition, with the first marriages due in February.

But the Irish language remains a key logjam. Sinn Fein has consistently made a standalone Irish Language Act a prerequisite of any deal to restore devolution.

ulster-powersharing Colum Eastwood and Clare Hanna of the SDLP with Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith at the pre-Christmas talks. Source: Niall Carson

There is an acknowledgement among all the parties that Stormont’s structures and practices require an overhaul.

Ulster Unionist Party leader Steve Aiken warned this month that “without fundamental reform, Northern Ireland’s Executive and Stormont will be incapable of surviving for more than a couple of months before we have another massive crisis”. 

One of the major issues is the controversial petition of concern. The mechanism, which enables large parties to effectively block change even if a majority of other MLAs agree to it, was designed to offer protections for minorities.

Yet many critics say it has been abused to block changes to same-sex marriage and to prevent the censure of ministers.

Both Tánaiste Simon Coveney and Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith blamed the DUP for preventing a pre-Christmas deal to restore Stormont power-sharing – and it appears that the petition of concern was the major reason behind the impasse. 

While neither Coveney nor Smith said what exactly the reason was, the BBC reported that the main impasse has been over the DUP and the petition of concern in these talks. 

“We reached a point last Thursday where four of the five parties were willing to close out the deal before Christmas, on the back of what the government were proposing, which is to essentially introduce a text or a paper that could be the basis for a foundation to reestablish a functioning Executive and Assembly,” Coveney told TheJournal.ie in an interview

“The DUP weren’t able to commit to that timeline, they felt there was more work needed, more compromise needed in some of the areas that they were concerned about. We felt we simply needed to be honest with the public in terms of what the hold up was, because the other four parties certainly didn’t want to be blamed for not doing a deal before Christmas,” he said. 

What happens now?

Talks are continuing – but there is a deadline. On 13 January, legislation that has given civil servants extra powers to operate in the governance vacuum expires. Secretary of State Julian Smith will then be under a legal duty to call another snap Assembly election. 

Smith has promised that the deadline is real and will not be extended with new legislation.

Coveney said that he believes that agreement can be reached and an election averted – but time is running out. 

With reporting from Press Association

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