As another deadline comes and goes, Stormont is once again left in limbo—with Westminster unclear as to what will happen nextby Siobhan Fenton / July 3, 2017 / Leave a comment
Political parties in Northern Ireland have failed to reach an agreement to return to power-sharing, after months of painstaking and intense negotiations. The announcement came on Monday afternoon in the House of Commons, as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire told MPs that Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionists have not managed to agree to re-enter Stormont.
In many ways, today’s announcement is merely official confirmation of what many have feared has been the new reality in Northern Irish politics for quite some time now. Both the politicians and the public have lost faith and interest in power-sharing and Stormont, will for the foreseeable future, lie empty.
Relations between nationalist and unionist politicians unravelled at a slow but steady pace in recent months.
It all began in January, when allegations emerged that a renewable heat scheme had been badly mismanaged and would cost the taxpayer close to half a billion pounds. The minister responsible for the scheme was Arlene Foster, the DUP’s leader. As Ms Foster refused to step aside while an investigation into the allegations was carried out, Sinn Féin refused to remain in government with the DUP.
Under power-sharing rules, both nationalists and unionists must be in power together in order for Stormont to operate. One cannot govern without the other. As a result, without Sinn Féin’s presence, the structures failed.
A deadline was set by Mr Brokenshire in February for the parties to reach an agreement. When this came and went without resolve, a snap election was called in March in the hope of electing a new government which would be willing to return to Stormont. The same figures, with the same outstanding and unresolved issues, were re-elected. A new deadline was set up—and then abandoned after Theresa May called a snap general election.
That final deadline was 4pm last Thursday, which also came and went without an agreement. Increasingly desperate, 10 Downing Street offered both parties the chance think about it again over the weekend. Unsurprisingly, no eleventh hour deal was struck.
It has now been six months since power-sharing first collapsed. In the time since, the issue has become much bigger than merely being about Arlene Foster’s alleged mishandling of the renewable heat scheme. Now that power-sharing has lost momentum, a consortium of long-held grievances have resurfaced, and gone from being side line grumbles to insurmountable redlines.
Sinn Féin are now insisting that they will not return to government unless they are guaranteed an Irish language act, to promote the minority language’s use in Northern Ireland. The act would establish an Irish language commissioner to promote the language and also allow some of the language to be spoken in Northern Irish courts and the prison system.
Similar acts for the Welsh and Scottish languages are already in place in the other devolved regions, but the DUP object to the use of Irish language as it is primarily spoken among Republican and nationalist communities in Northern Ireland.
Sinn Féin accepts that it is unlikely to make considerable material difference locally, where very few people speak Irish, but insist that the act must be approved due to the principles of diversity and respect for Irish culture that it represents.
Sinn Féin have since also suggested another red line issue is the DUP’s continued vetoing of legislation against same-sex marriage. The DUP, who as an evangelical Christian party object to LGBT rights, have blocked extension of such legislation.
It is as if the previously unthinkable collapse of Stormont has prompted politicians from both sides to air deep grievances about the oncept of power-sharing that they have previously felt unable to. Tensions are high and both parties accuse each other of being arrogant and impossible to work with.
As Brokenshire addressed the House of Commons, it became clear that the British government has few ideas of what to do next. He has not set a new deadline, but nor has he committed to doing one of the two things governments are required to enact once power-sharing talks fail: call another election or impose direct rule. Brokenshire told MPs that he is keeping his options “under review,” offering up the faint hope that a deal could still be possible “this week”—optimism which few in Northern Ireland share.
In many ways, he faces two equally unpalatable choices. It is hard to see how either option would help in the current circumstances. The Northern Irish electorate is already weary of trips to the polling station, having voted some six times in little over a year with local elections, general elections and the Brexit referendum.
However, direct rule from London also poses its own problems due to the current DUP-Conservative pact. Many in the nationalist or Catholic community in Northern Ireland would recoil in horror at what they would perceive to be a biased and pro-DUP London government running the country.
So what happens to Northern Ireland now? With no new deadline in place, power-sharing remains in limbo. Civil servants will continue to run Northern Ireland, as they have done since this Spring, allotting funding for different schemes and policies. However, no new legislation can be brought forward by them and no new laws can be passed.
Without a budget in place, civil servants can only access 95 per cent of the ‘block grant’ money that Northern Ireland receives, meaning many vital services such as health and education could see their funding cut as this missing 5 per cent starts to bite.
It will remain to be seen how the power-sharing failure is received by the Northern Irish population. Many, particularly the younger generations, saw Stormont as a permanent fixture since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Although disagreements and delays have occurred along the way, power-sharing has been in place uninterrupted for the best part of a decade. For many, especially the young, there now may grow a strong sense of disillusion and despair at local politics, as deadline after deadline looms but then fades.
The British government appears to be engaging in more stalling tactics, merely acknowledging the gravity of the situation but offering few solutions as they struggle to justify direct rule or another election. However, such interim measures will not provide the stability that Northern Ireland urgently needs.
Stormont is facing its most difficult challenge for a decade. Without enough will from local politicians or leadership from the British government, it appears these challenges may now be proving insurmountable.