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The Big Question: How deep is Northern Ireland's political crisis and can it be resolved?

Why are we asking this now?

The Northern Ireland peace process is in crisis, with the two biggest parties, the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein, at loggerheads on the interlinked issues of policing and parades regulation.

Many months of effort have failed to ease the logjam – in fact relations between the parties have soured as the impasse persisted and frustrations grew. Sinn Fein has accused the DUP leader Peter Robinson of deliberate stalling, issuing a series of warnings over the past few months that it would not forever stay in the Belfast Assembly unless it was part of a meaningful partnership.

A Sinn Fein withdrawal could trigger premature and almost certainly destabilising Assembly elections.

Mr Robinson retorted that there was insufficient confidence in the Protestant community for a change in policing arrangements. Sinn Fein-DUP talks intensified in recent weeks but got nowhere, so this week Gordon Brown and the Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen got involved.

How did they do?

There was talk that they had about 80 per cent of the problem sorted but they couldn't manage the breakthrough they sought. They put in a determined effort which included a resort to nocturnal diplomacy, staying up one night until 3am, the next until 5.30am.

Many meetings were held and many papers exchanged as they sought a middle way. But despite all their efforts the red-eyed premiers found that success eluded them. On Wednesday they reluctantly concluded that they had not achieved success, saying instead that they had mapped out a "pathway".

What will this pathway entail?

It basically recommends that the Assembly should approve the devolution of policing powers from London to Belfast in March, paving the way for the actual transfer to happen in early May. The governments are very keen for this to happen.

In the meantime, a fresh look will be taken on the question of how to regulate Orange marches.

The parties are due to report any progress this morning. In the absence of an unexpected last-gasp breakthrough the prime ministers will publish their pathway document, outlining their compromise proposals and hoping the parties can be pushed into going along with it. The parties can be expected to take away and study it.

Is policing transfer a complicated business?

The Assembly already has 10 departmental ministers. It will mean setting up a new Justice Department in Belfast. If and when this happens it has been agreed that the new minister will be a member of neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein, but instead be a centrist figure acceptable to both. It will also be an expensive business.

Up to £1bn could be involved, and this was an early sticking-point. The financial aspects were cleared up a while ago, however, when Gordon Brown agreed that Westminster would provide £800,000 to cover the transfer costs.

Why is policing devolution so important?

In one sense these issues are far less fundamental than the many huge hurdles the peace process has already successfully surmounted. The transfer of powers will complete the devolution jigsaw but most of the new policing framework is already in place. The old Royal Ulster Constabulary has been replaced by a new Police Service of Northern Ireland which has more Catholics, more women and a more civilianised ethos.

Sinn Fein, which once supported IRA violence, already sits on the Northern Ireland Policing Board, supporting the police and calling on its supporters to join the force. It has described dissident republicans who continue to use violence as "traitors".

What's the public's view?

There is little interest in the details, given that other parts of the policing apparatus are already in place. But although the details of the issue excite negligible public concern, it clearly carries a powerful political charge. While London, Dublin and Sinn Fein are at one in saying it should happen quickly, Peter Robinson's DUP wants to slow things down.

Why are Orange marches back on the agenda?

The DUP holds that the body which regulates them, the Parades Commission, is unfair and restrictions on loyalist marches should be relaxed as a way of increasing Protestant confidence. In the 1990s parades caused mayhem, with disruption so widespread that on several occasions it almost closed Northern Ireland down. Since then the issue has died down. Sinn Fein now argues that reopening it could bring a return to those bad old days.

Why does the DUP not want rapid movement on policing?

Opinions differ on this. The party maintains it can only move when the timing and all the details are right and so has been holding out against the combined pressure of both governments and Sinn Fein.

The DUP's critics suspect ulterior motives, saying Mr Robinson is fearful of hardline opponents both inside and outside the DUP. In this scenario he is attempting to avoid giving his enemies ammunition to use against him, particularly if a new Assembly election is called.

His position is not a strong one. He has stepped aside as First Minister in the wake of the scandals surrounding his wife Iris and the revelation of her affair with a teenager.

A number of inquiries into financial dealings are in the offing. If Sinn Fein walks from the Assembly, the result could be elections in which straight-laced DUP supporters could be expected to punish the party for the Iris affair. A drop in support could mean the DUP would lose the First Minister's post.

Where is Sinn Fein in all this?

It has taken some hits over revelations of child abuse within the family of Gerry Adams, with allegations that he could have done more to alert the authorities of accusations against his brother and that he should have banished him from Sinn Fein.

Although it is thought unlikely to suffer in any Assembly elections it would prefer to avert them, since republicans are seeking a more smoothly functioning administration. Assembly elections could produce even more uncertainty and instability: some possible outcomes could bring the whole system grinding to a halt.

Would the public care if that happened?

It appears that most would care quite a lot. All the signs are that large majorities on both the unionist and nationalist sides are very much in favour of the Assembly, even though it has regularly been beset by crises such as this one. There is much anxiety that it might crash.

Nobody regards the current settlement as perfect but it is regarded as a valuable bulwark against any return of the troubles. It is seen as potentially a level playing-field on which the business of politics can be conducted, and a symbol of what has been achieved through the long-drawn-out peace process.

Can the two sides ever agree?


* London and Dublin are absolutely at one and are pushing the locals hard in a combined effort

* Public opinion in Northern Ireland is heavily in favour of the Assembly and wants to protect it

* An Assembly election could produce splintered results and new political uncertainties


* Peter Robinson's Democratic Unionist party contains hardliners who oppose any major concessions

* The party is nervous, after the Iris Robinson affair, of making concessions that would make it look soft

* In several years of sharing government with Sinn Fein, little or no trust has been built up