The Stormont Talks, Put Simply

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By Blog Writer Beth Blackmore

“There can and will be no return to the status quo” – these were the strident words of Michelle O’Neill, speaking after her election as Sinn’s Féin’s northern leader in January of this year. As 2017 draws to a close, O’Neill may well be proved right, but not in the way that she hoped.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, last week imposed a budget on Northern Ireland. Following months of political paralysis in Stormont, Brokenshire revealed plans on Monday 13th November detailing an overall spending increase of 3.2%, in line with inflation. This has ignited fears that this is the start of a ‘slippery slope’ to direct rule of the region by Westminster, whereby the functions and powers of the devolved government are taken over by London. Whilst Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), commended the decision as ‘good governance’, O’Neill believes that the role the DUP play in propping up the Conservative government has led Theresa May to pander to their interests.

This, all in the context of talks that have been ongoing between the two most powerful parties in Northern Ireland since the beginning of the year, when Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness resigned from the role of Deputy First Minister. McGuinness, who had been in ill health, made his decision in protest after Foster refused to step down as First Minister during an investigation of the ‘cash for ash’ scandal. This refers to her time spent in charge of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, where she oversaw a deeply flawed renewable energy initiative that ended up costing the taxpayer upwards of £500 million.

Under the power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland, which aims to minimise the risk of conflict by representing all communities, Sinn Féin’s subsequent refusal to nominate a replacement resulted in a snap election, where their party’s gains led the DUP to lose their majority. This is significant, given the ideological antagonism between the two parties – Sinn Féin represents the nationalist/Republican tradition of Northern Ireland, which advocates for unification with the Republic in the South, whereas the DUP characterises the principle of unionism, which seeks to preserve the region’s link with Britain.

Despite initially being given a deadline of three weeks to come to a new arrangement, talks have dragged on for months, with Brokenshire continually extending the deadline in the hope that progress will be made.

One of the major sticking points is Sinn Féin’s insistence on an Irish language Act, which will see Gaelic being given equal status with English in the region. The DUP favour a broader Culture Act, which will also protect Ulster Scots and elements of Protestant culture. Disagreements have also arisen in regard to how to deal with the legacy of violence from the Troubles, with each party wanting to ensure that killings both by sides are properly investigated.

The stagnation of the talks led Brokenshire to threaten to freeze the local assembly’s salaries, and discuss the possibility of a Westminster-administered budget. Sinn Féin fears that this signals the beginning of a return to direct rule, an option that both Brokenshire and Theresa May have professed they are not in favour of.

Other prominent parties such as Alliance and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) have expressed concerns that the stalemate at Stormont is distracting from another pressing political issue: Brexit. The departure of the UK from the European Union has particular significance for Northern Ireland, with some fearing that a hard border will undermine the Good Friday peace agreement and potentially destabilise the region.

The prospects for a deal are not looking positive, with Gerry Adams, the President of Sinn Féin who has just announced his intention to step down in 2018, predicting that an agreement is unlikely to occur before Christmas. In light of this, Westminster appears to believe it has no choice but to start making tough decisions.

Sources and Further Reading

Image: Robert Young @ Flickr

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