Power-sharing talks collapsed earlier this week after Sinn Féin said it would not be nominating a Deputy First Minister
Negotiations reached a stalemate on Sunday as the deadline for forming a new Executive passed and the two biggest parties, Sinn Féin and the DUP, blamed each other.
Former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigned in January after almost a decade in the role in protest at the DUP’s handling of a green energy scheme. This triggered a snap election, which brought an end to Stormont’s Unionist majority and saw the DUP’s lead over Sinn Féin cut from ten seats to one.
New Sinn Féin leader Michelle O’Neill said her party would be standing firm and that the fault lay with the DUP for refusing to act on Mr McGuinness’ resignation and the election results.
“When the extent of the [Renewable Heat Incentive] scandal became apparent and the first minister refused to step aside, Martin McGuinness acted and made clear there could be no return to the status quo,” she said. “The decision by Martin McGuinness to resign was endorsed in the election.
“The election result has transformed the political landscape. The approach of the unionist parties and the governments must reflect this change.
“We entered talks to implement what had already been agreed, to rebuild public confidence in an executive and assembly, operating on the basis of equality and respect and rights for all in society.
“This was an entirely reasonable approach. Sinn Féin in the talks sought the full implementation of the outstanding issues of equality and rights. The governments and the DUP have failed to step up to the plate.”
Arlene Foster, however, said that Sinn Féin were never truly serious about engaging in the talks and that it was treating the situation like a “game”.
“These talks have failed because there wasn’t a recognition of everyone’s mandates,” said the former First Minister.
“The government of Northern Ireland is not a game – it is very serious. The decision of Sinn Féin not to nominate and block the creation of a new executive is very regrettable and damaging to all the people we represent.”
The focus has shifted to Northern Ireland Secretary, James Brokenshire, who admitted that there is “no appetite for another election” following the breakdown of talks. Legislation requires him to call new elections or another option is to reintroduce direct rule from Westminster. He said that progress had been made on “a number of issues” but that there are “significant gaps between the parties, particularly over issues surrounding culture and identity”.
This includes the topic of an Irish language act, which has been the subject of controversy in recent weeks with advocates accusing those in power of ignoring their interests. Mr Brokenshire added that there remains a desire among politicians in Northern Ireland to create a “strong and stable devolved government” and that this attitude is mirrored by voters. Ireland Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan, expressed his disappointment at the lack of a deal, particularly given the uncertainty surrounding the UK Government’s triggering of Article 50 this week.
“The absence of agreement on the establishment of an executive is, for many reasons, deeply regrettable,” Mr Flanagan said. “However, it is particularly concerning that a vacuum in devolved government in Northern Ireland should now be occurring just as the island of Ireland faces up to the many serious challenges represented by the UK exit from the EU.”
He added that the Irish Government would be working very closely with its British counterparts in the coming days and that it intends to promote the fact that the Good Friday Agreement remains the template for the political process in the North. Sinn Féin President, Gerry Adams, has called on Taoiseach Enda Kenny to “stand up” for such an agreement.
“The Taoiseach knows he is the co-equal guarantor, with the British PM, of the Good Friday and other agreements. People across this island need to see the Taoiseach standing up for these agreements,” he said.