20 years after the Agreement, 13 months of no government

20 years after Agreement 13 months no government
Sinn Fein leader, President Mary Lou McDonald TD and Leader of Sinn Féin in the Northern Ireland Assembly Michelle O’Neill. Photo: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

Will these women succeed where the men before them failed?

With a certain weary familiarity the British and Irish governments returned to Stormont this week hoping for a deal.

Prime Minister Theresa May and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar flew in to Belfast this week in a joint push to help end the 13-month political stalemate.

Neither head of government would be there if they had not been given indications of agreement between the DUP and Sinn Féin. But the true key to restoring democratic devolved government to Northern Ireland – twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement – lies not in the hands of Mrs May and her Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley but three other women: DUP leader Arlene Foster, newly installed Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald, and her deputy Michelle O’Neill.

The leaders arrived at Stormont House Monday lunchtime. After meeting Sinn Féin and the DUP, Theresa May and Leo Varadkar met the other Stormont Assembly parties, the Alliance Party, the SDLP and the UUP.

Several previous rounds of talks between the DUP and Sinn Féin had until this week failed to break the political deadlock.

Northern Ireland has been run by British civil servants since the power-sharing executive made up of the DUP and Sinn Féin collapsed in January 2017 when the then deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, pulled Sinn Féin out of the coalition after a series of disagreements with the final straw being the DUP’s handling the scandal of The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme. It was intended as a green energy initiative to encourage businesses in Northern Ireland to switch from fossil fuels to renewable sources. But major flaws in its set up and implementation by the Minster responsible at the time – Arlene Foster – meant it went vastly over its budget, with the latest estimated overspend set at £700m and some businessmen and farmers set to earn millions just by keeping empty barns heated.

Among the other issues dividing Northern Ireland’s two largest parties, Sinn Féin and the DUP who had hitherto shared power for a decade, is Sinn Féin’s insistence on an Irish language act in the face of implacable DUP hostility to the idea.

20 years after Agreement 13 months no government
Arlene Foster. Photo: Sam Boal / RollingNews.ie

Ahead of this week’s talks British and Irish officials had expressed guarded support for the face-saving solution of three separate bills, one for the Irish language, one dealing with Ulster Scots and one for wider cultural issues. The three bills would ultimately end up merged as one legislative Act.

Marriage equality, sometimes called Gay Marriage, which is legal throughout the rest of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland but not in Northern Ireland has also been a stumbling block with the DUP deeply opposed to it. This week there have been suggestions that this might be deferred to Westminster with, perhaps, a Private Member’s Bill introducing the necessary legislation. If the legislation was moved in Stormont the DUP no longer has enough MLAs to block it using the so-called Petition of Concern with which it vetoed earlier attempts.

On the other contended issue, facing up to and discovering the truth of many of Northern Ireland’s worst atrocities, it has been suggested that past proposals such as an Historical Investigations Unit to inquire into Troubles-related murders and a separate Independent Commission on Information Retrieval – which will feature in a consultative paper by the Northern Secretary Karen Bradley – would also be part of the deal.

20 years after Agreement 13 months no government
L TO R. Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald TD and Vice President Michelle O’Neill MLA speaking to the media at Stormont about Northern Ireland and Brexit. Photo: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

A spokesman for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar played down expectations of an imminent breakthrough as did the DUP.

Mr Varadkar’s spokesman said he was using the visit to “assess the state of play” and “encourage the parties to reach an agreement”.

“The (Irish) government has consistently said that the restoration of the institutions is essential in the context of full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, and that it will continue to work very closely with the British government to support the northern parties to achieve this outcome,” he added.

Last weekend as outgoing President of Sinn Féin Gerry Adams handed over the leadership to Mary Lou Mcdonald and Michelle O’Neill at a special conference in Dublin, Ms O’Neill predicted that the Stormont talks would conclude this week.

Ahead of Monday’s meeting a spokesman for Mr Varadkar said he would “use his visit to encourage the parties to reach an agreement so that functioning institutions can commence work again in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland”.

A spokesman for Mrs May said she was there to “remind the parties of the many pressing issues facing Northern Ireland and restate her strong belief that a fully functioning Executive, empowered to take decisions over local matters, is the best way to serve the interests of the whole community”.

Even if agreement is reached this week legislation will be required in the House of Commons – in recess until 20 February – to restore Stormont.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood made a plaintive appeal to both governments that it would not be enough to go back to the status quo and restore the SF-DUP Executive, meaning they could still hold Northern Irish politics to ransom again in the future.

“The real change necessary is an end to the cycle of two parties who have proved themselves very good at the art of political stand-off, but very bad at the responsibility of government. That is the joint DUP/Sinn Fein status quo that must now end,” said the SDLP leader.

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