Northern Ireland talks: Can a fresh power-sharing deal be agreed by DUP and Sinn Fein?

After more than two years of political stalemate, the public mood following the death of Lyra McKee has pushed the main parties back to the Stormont negotiation table

Ben Kelly@BenKellyTweets
Tuesday 07 May 2019 11:40
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Fresh talks on restoring power-sharing government at Stormont says Karen Bradley

Northern Ireland politicians are resuming talks in an attempt to restore power-sharing to the region, over two years since it last had a functioning devolved government.

Sinn Fein and the DUP are back at the table, hoping to strike a deal which would see them return to share power in the Northern Ireland Executive at Stormont.

Sinn Fein are calling for the observation of equality and rights, particularly for Irish language speakers and LGBT people, while the DUP are refusing to concede on these issues.

The talks will also attempt to re-establish the North-South Ministerial Council, while the British-Irish Council will convene again on 8 May.

Why has Northern Ireland had no government?

Under the Good Friday Agreement, power-sharing in Northern Ireland requires the participation of the biggest parties from both the nationalist and unionist communities.

In January 2017, Sinn Fein pulled out of the Executive after details emerged of the DUP’s handling of a botched green energy scheme (RHI). But in his resignation letter, Martin McGuinness spelled out much wider complaints about the unionist party, accusing them of a long-standing “negative attitude” towards nationalism, and “shameful disrespect” for the rights of women, LGBT people and ethnic minorities.

What has happened since?

The resignation of Mr McGuinness triggered a snap election, which returned Sinn Fein and the DUP as the largest parties. They have been unable to come to an agreement ever since, with Brexit and the DUP’s relationship with the Conservatives complicating matters further.

In February 2018, an agreement appeared imminent, but it collapsed at the eleventh hour when the DUP backed out. It is widely believed that this came after grassroots unionists expressed their opposition to an Irish Language Act, although the party says the deal in question was never a final draft.

The murder of journalist Lyra McKee in Derry in April, and a visible public appetite for something to be done, was the impetus for this new round of talks.

When will the talks be held and who is involved?

Talks will begin in Belfast on Tuesday 7 May, and have been given a three week window for success. These are coming in between local elections, and the elections for the European Parliament, which take place on 23 May in the UK and on 24 May in Ireland.

This process will be overseen by Secretary of State Karen Bradley, and Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney. Theresa May and Leo Varadkar will also be closely involved, and would be present for the signing off of any final deal.

What is being discussed at talks?

Irish Language Act

Sinn Fein want legislation for an Irish Language Act, which the DUP oppose. The act would be similar to the rights enjoyed by Scottish and Welsh speakers in their countries, and is something which was included in the St Andrew’s Agreement of 2006, which the DUP signed up to.

This has become a bitter division point, and highly symbolic of both the treatment of minorities in Northern Ireland, and the cultural war that exists between Sinn Fein and the DUP. Sinn Fein see language recognition as equal treatment for the Irish nationalist tradition - a fundamental part of the Good Friday Agreement - but the DUP see it as a Trojan horse for greater advancement of the republican cause.

The success of these talks really hinges on how this major issue can be resolved.

Same-Sex Marriage

Northern Ireland is currently the only part of the UK and Ireland where same-sex marriage isn’t legal. Sinn Fein want to change this, and give equal rights to LGBT people, but the DUP are virulently opposed.

Same-sex marriage actually had a majority at Stormont when it was voted on for a fifth time in November 2015, but the DUP blocked it.

The petition of concern

The reason why the DUP have been able to veto same-sex marriage - and would surely do the same for other popular issues which they oppose - is because they have used the Petition of Concern. This is supposed to be used to safeguard minority rights, but has been used questionably in the past by both parties.

The SDLP have called for a temporary suspension of the Petition of Concern to allow the Assembly to pass policies which enjoy majority support but which the DUP would block. Neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP seem keen on removing the veto, but some reform of it could be possible.

Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP, Mary Lou McDonald, Leader of Sinn Fein and Michelle O'Neill, Vice President of Sinn Fein attend the funeral service of journalist Lyra McKee

The RHI inquiry

One of the main triggers of Stormont’s collapse was the RHI scandal, which saw around £500m of taxpayer money wasted on a botched green energy scheme. It caused huge damage to the DUP’s image and internal party relations, but the 2018 inquiry into the scandal also raised questions about what Sinn Fein knew of the scheme’s handling.

This isn’t a deal-breaker, but it’s something of an elephant in the room for the two parties. The result of the inquiry is expected within months, and could be damning for Arlene Foster, which would go some way to vindicating Sinn Fein's original criticisms of her in late 2016. But it could also provide a wider critique of how ministers operate at Stormont.

What are the possible outcomes?

A deal is reached

If a deal is agreed, the Executive would be restored and MLAs could return to Stormont immediately.

Fresh elections

If no deal is reached, it is within the power of Karen Bradley to call another Assembly election in an attempt to break the deadlock. Much has changed since they were last called in March 2017, but they are unlikely to return any parties other than Sinn Fein and the DUP as the two largest, and therefore this would bring things back to where they began.

Direct rule

Karen Bradley’s other option is the reintroduction of direct rule from London. No one wants this, but it might be the only option left to provide government for a region which is currently being run on scant budgets by civil servants.

This option would undermine the Good Friday Agreement and create a larger headache for the British government, as it would be strongly opposed by the Irish government. Calls for joint authority from London and Dublin would come from Sinn Fein, although this would be totally unacceptable for the British government and their partners in the DUP.

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