Northern Ireland has once more made headlines as a result of its protracted political crisis. Ever since the Stormont Assembly was collapsed last January as a result of the resignation of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness over the RHI scheme, all efforts to get both major parties; Sinn Féin and the DUP to agree to a deal have failed. Last week saw the latest efforts come tantalising close to a deal, one that as a result of leaks after the collapse of the talks seemed to favour the DUP.
Many of Sinn Féin’s political objectives would be achieved in this deal, but almost none in the desired form, and the DUP could safely claim that they had secured their primary objectives, namely the retention of Arlene Foster as First Minister and securing some form of an agreement to prevent the collapse of the Stormont assembly over smaller disagreements. According to the leaked drafts that have emerged since the collapse of talks, a ‘cooling off’ of six weeks was agreed between the parties to allow them to agree on a possible solution prior to collapsing the Assembly.
However, with the collapse of the talks, these reforms will remain locked away on the drawing board. The greater concern that is now emerging after the collapse of talks is the recent efforts by Pro-Brexit members of Parliament to undermine the Good Friday Agreement. From both sides of the aisle have referred to the Good Friday Agreement as outdated and having served its purpose. This should it become the prevailing belief amongst UK MP’s that the Good Friday Agreement is no longer relevant to a modern UK then the risks attached to a hard border increase rather dramatically. The GFA represents the only agreement that has thus far brought both sides of the NI debate to the table in a diplomatic manner, and even that took a significant amount of time. Simply tearing up one of the seminal peace agreements of the 20th century is increasingly seeming like a simple casualty of the Brexit inertia that is driving forward British politics.
The GFA kicked up some of the greatest difficulties regarding the EU-UK boarder agreement that was agreed in concept at the end of Phase One discussions in December, as the UK tried to balance the need to fulfil the GFA and remove themselves from the EU internal markets and customs union. While this issue was seemingly resolved in the December agreement, the recent demand from the Ireland and the EU that the UK spells out how exactly how it intended to avoid re-emergence of a so called ‘hard border’.
Given the UK’s inability thus far produce a viable option, the near return of the Stormont Assembly was viewed as vital. It was hoped that NI politicians could perhaps offer a solution to the unique problems faced by Northern Ireland. Now that these efforts have failed once more the Government in Westminster is once more left with the question of how to proceed. And the end of the day a huge part of the problems facing NI is the ongoing difference between the DUP and Sinn Fein, in part exacerbated by the fact that the Unionist majority in the country is growing slimmer. The failure of Sinn Fein leader Michelle O’Neill and DUP leader Arlene Foster to form the same successful working relationship and Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley.
This lack of trust and working relationship between the parties is part of what has broken down the talks consistently. Now that Westminster is considering the prospect of a return to direct rule, the situation has taken on a new urgency. The DUP currently support Theresa May’s Conservative party in a Confidence and Supply agreement not unlike the one that supports the Irish Minority Government. The issue this presents is it raises the question of whether or not the UK Government can be an impartial arbiter for NI and its feuding parties. If it can’t fulfil this role then even more damage could be done to the already weakened institutions.
More than ever, there is a need for courage from NI Politicians. According the leaked agreement from last week, Sinn Fein has seemingly already found that courage and given some ground to gain some. The DUP on the other hand seems utterly beholden to the will of an increasingly hard-line base whom are unwilling to compromise in any way. The only way this crisis is going to resolve itself now is for the DUP to come back to the table and learn to compromise. A failure to do so will result in direct rule and another massive complication in the Brexit negotiation.
The EU is still highlighting the North a key issue in negotiations, and given the ever shortening time period till the UK’s departure, resolving this issue needs to become a priority for the British Government.
Aaron Bowman – Politics Editor