The last three weeks were always going to come to one conclusion…
The Northern Ireland Secretary of State, James Brokenshire, has ruled out calling for a second snap election, which would have been the third occasion that Northern Ireland voters would have visited the polls in a year. It is not unlikely that Brokenshire is aware of the closing margins between the two leading parties, and the mere 1,100 first preferences votes that separated Sinn Fein and the DUP at the last election. With a nationalist majority now at Stormont, if Sinn Fein were able to claim the First Minister seat, it is likely that they would use it as a clear sign that the conditions of the Good Friday Agreement had been met for a border poll to be called on Irish unity.
Entering into the negotiations, there were a series of issues that had to be dealt with in the cross-party talks:
- The Renewable Heat Initiative scandal, which triggered Martin McGuinness’ resignation as Deputy First Minister to collapse the Executive. The botched energy initiative is estimated to cost Northern Ireland over £400 million. Arlene Foster refused to step down as leader of the DUP for her role in the scandal, later claiming that the calls for her resignation were ‘sexist’. Nevertheless, greater giants have fallen on much smaller swords. Peter Robinson, her immediate predecessor, resigned over a private property deal worth £50,000 and a scandal involving his wife, Iris Robinson.
- An Irish Language Act. Sinn Fein has been lobbying for years to achieve an Act that would safeguard funding for the Irish Language, and essentially protect the language itself. Arlene Foster referred to Sinn Fein, and by extension their supporters, as being like a ‘crocodile’ during an election campaign statement, insinuating that by giving them the Irish Language Act, they would only come back for more. A report by the Council of Europe found against the DUP’s decision to refuse to give an Irish language act, referring to the Irish language as the “hostage of sectarianism”.
- Petitions of Concern. Sinn Fein has repeatedly stated that ensuring equality for all Northern Ireland citizens was a precondition of entering into an Executive following the snap election. The DUP have repeatedly used the petitions of concern to prevent legislation on legalising gay marriage and abortion. Moving the DUP away from their socially conservative views on marriage and reproductive rights was an issue that Brokenshire and his team should have brought to the heart of the talks.
- Brexit. No other province of the United Kingdom would be as affected by their departure from the European Union than Northern Ireland. While the British government attempt to push an ‘equality’ approach when dealing with the devolved administration, there is no doubt that Northern Ireland rarely has a true seat at the table.
- The legacy of the past; few things ever change in Northern Ireland politics, and nineteen years after the Good Friday Agreement, the legacy of ‘The Troubles’ has still not be dealt with to the satisfaction of the major parties.
Even before the talks officially came to their deadline at 4pm on Monday, it was clear that no deal would be made. The DUP did not take part in discussions on Sunday and Michelle O’Neill made it clear that, by that stage, they were refusing to nominate to the position of Deputy First Minister or putting votes forward for the position of speaker.
Shortly, Brokenshire is expected to address MPs in the House of Commons over the collapse of the cross-party talks. With another snap election ruled out, it is likely Northern Ireland could enter direct rule once again. If three weeks of negotiations have been unable to bear fruit, perhaps a return to direct rule may present the opportunity for both the British and Irish governments to properly deal with the issues that have been plaguing the Stormont Executive for years?
For more on a return to direct rule, see my earlier piece from January on the (then) possible collapse of the Executive.