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It's more than two years since Stormont collapsed and a deal looks as far away as ever

The Northern Assembly has been shuttered for around 18,000 hours.

Ulster powersharing Source: Niall Carson

IN JANUARY 2017 Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness announced his resignation as Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland bringing the, once-promising, power-sharing arrangement with the DUP to an acrimonious end.

In the two years since there has been:

  • Numerous failed attempts to restore power.
  • The appointment of two new Northern Ireland secretaries by the UK government.
  • A fresh round of elections to the assembly.
  • A general election in the UK.
  • Pay cuts of nearly £14,000 (€15,818) for assembly members.

During that time, the DUP became a vital prop keeping Prime Minister Theresa May’s government in power in the House of Commons and Martin McGuinness passed away.

Meanwhile, talks attempting to resolve the crisis have proved futile, the gates of Stormont remain shut and it doesn’t look like the padlocks will be removed anytime soon.

Martin McGuinness death Arlene Foster, signs a book of condolences for Martin McGuinness, as Sinn Fein NI leader Michelle O'Neill looks on. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

So, who is running the North?

With no functioning government for more than two years, the North is effectively being run by unelected civil servants who are operating with limited resources.

Westminster has twice passed budgets since the devolved institutions collapsed however it has stopped short of imposing direct rule from London.

The region has a recent history of being under direct rule. The latest period ran from 2002 until 2007 and it was in place for 26 years from 1972 until 1998 during the Troubles.

Dylan Quinn protest walk Campaigner Dylan Quinn walked from Enniskillen to Stormont in protest at the lack of a functioning government. Source: Niall Carson

As the two-year anniversary passed on 9 January, both parties made positive sounding statements about supporting restoring the assembly but the political realities have not shifted and a deal looks as far away as ever.

Why can’t they agree to share power?

There have been several aborted efforts to reopen Stormont in the past two years. The most recent round of discussions got underway when Karen Bradley was appointed Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in January 2018.

A draft deal appeared to have been approved by all sides but it dramatically fell through on Valentines Day. Sinn Féin blamed the DUP for the break down while the DUP said it could not agree to a standalone Irish Language Act, as was sought by their republican counterparts.

Language has routinely been a flash point between the two parties. Sinn Féin has been seeking the introduction of an Irish language Act (Acht na Gaeilge), which would give Irish equal status with English, for more than a decade.

While prominent DUP politicians have mocked Irish in the Northern Assembly and, party leader, Arlene Foster has argued that there should be a Polish language act instead because she claims that more people in Northern Ireland speak Polish than Irish.

DUP conference 2018 Party leader Arlene Foster speaking during the DUP annual conference. Source: Michael Cooper

The two parties also, of course, have polar opposite views on the UK’s exit from the European Union.

Sinn Féin has called for a referendum on Irish unity in the event of a no-deal Brexit and it wants Northern Ireland to remain in the EU, while the DUP wants to leave and has insisted that the North must be treated exactly the same as the rest of the UK following the withdrawal.

What happens now?

In a bid to break the deadlock, Bradley announced in September that assembly members’ salaries were being slashed by almost £14,000. She also ruled out calling an election despite being required to do under legislation.

Karen Bradley Stormont talks Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley. Source: Victoria Jones

“I have not believed and do not now believe that holding an election during this time of significant change and political uncertainty would be helpful or would increase the prospects of restoring the Executive,” she explained.

With the two largest parties at loggerheads over the role of the Irish language and on the opposite sides of the Brexit divide it appears as if they waiting to see how the UK’s withdrawal from the EU plays out before returning to local governance.

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About the author:

Ceimin Burke

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