Stormont power-sharing talks look set to fail again
Secretary of State James Brokenshire has set Monday as a deadline for protracted talks between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party to be wrapped up after months of wrangling, before Westminster steps in.
But even after ten months of talks since the collapse of the Northern Irish executive, politicians are not confident an agreement will be reached.
Last week Irish premier Leo Varadkar waded into the debate as he condemned Sinn Fein and the DUP, saying the two parties “are not close” to reaching a power-sharing agreement.
The supposed final ultimatum came as former US President Bill Clinton met with UK Prime Minister Theresa May last week to discuss the continuing deadlock.
Sinn Féin and the DUP have brought us to the brink of Direct Rule
And political experts suggest an agreement is far from secure. University of Manchester politics professor Roger MacGinty said: “I see the prospects of an immediate agreement as low. The fundamental problem is that the DUP and Sinn Fein do not trust each other.
“In effect direct rule from London is already in place. Despite the zombie politics of deadlock, society is largely functioning as normal: bins are being emptied and schools are open. In a sense, things are too comfortable for a major push towards agreement.
“Theresa May has little interest in Northern Ireland beyond keeping the DUP sweet because of parliamentary arithmetic. Let’s face it, her plate is full with Brexit and clinging onto power. “
Northern Ireland’s majority party, the Democratic Unionists (DUP) have pointed the finger at Sinn Féin for stalling discussions.
A DUP spokesman said: “Northern Ireland has been without an effective government since the start of the year.
“The DUP would have formed an Executive immediately after the Assembly election without any pre-conditions. It is Sinn Fein alone who have stopped issues like health and education being dealt with by local Ministers.
But Sinn Féin has put the blame firmly on the DUP and Westminster, saying “time is running out”.
Sinn Féin leader Michelle O’Neill said: “We’re now in the fourth phase of negotiations this year.
“Sinn Féin have been consistent in our resolve to restore the institutions on the basis of the Good Friday Agreement with equality, rights and respect at their core.
James Brokenshire said the DUP and SF have until Monday before Westminster steps in
“If the British Government and the DUP want a deal, they should end their denial of basic rights which are protected everywhere else on these islands. Language rights, marriage equality and the right to proper coroners inquests. To date, they have refused to do so.”
The difficulties between the DUP and Sinn Féin are long-running. The devolved government collapsed in January, with then deputy first minister Martin McGuinness calling for DUP leader Arlene Foster to step aside after a botched renewable scheme was projected to cost Northern Ireland as much as £490 million – its annual budget is around £10 billion.
Direct rule was last used between 2002 and 2006 when Tony Blair was Prime Minister. It took five years of talks before the DUP and Sinn Féin were able to form a power-sharing deal in May 2007.
Deputy leader of the Alliance party, Stephen Parry, slammed the DUP and Sinn Féin for failing to reach to an agreement.
Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill are at loggerheads
He said: “The people of Northern Ireland have shown extraordinary patience in tolerating this situation while the crisis in our health and education systems, and other public services is increasing, opportunities to grow our economy are being missed, and Northern Ireland has no governmental voice in crucial Brexit negotiations.
“If there is a deal to be done, then it needs to be done now.”
Ulster Unionist Party Leader Robin Swann said the Secretary of State has a responsibility to look at other options that would allow other parties to get on with the job if the DUP and Sinn Féin are unable to form an Executive.
SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood said: “After 10 months of no government, after two elections and after month upon month of talking it appears that Sinn Féin and the DUP have brought us to the brink of Direct Rule.
“While crises engulf our health services and our schools, they have talked for month after month and have only delivered failure.”