Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government hangs by a thread

Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government hangs by a thread

In the same week that former IRA leader Martin McGuinness was buried, the power-sharing government he worked so hard to create now hangs by a thread, after the republican party Sinn Féin walked out of negotiations on a new deal, raising the possibility of another snap election or the return of direct rule from Westminster.

On Sunday, Michelle O’Neill, leader of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland called a halt to negotiations with the Democratic Unionist Party. “This talks process has run its course. Sinn Féin will not be supporting nominations for Speaker or the Executive tomorrow.” At 4 p.m. on Monday the deadline for forming a new coalition will expire and Northern Ireland’s future will once again be in the hands of those in power in London.

Peace process rules mean that, because O’Neill won’t be nominated as deputy first minister, no government can be created. This is the same situation that created sparked the most recent election when McGuinness — then leader of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland — stepped down in January over a controversy engulfing DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster.

The breakdown in negotiations could not have come at a worse time for Northern Ireland. The U.K. government about to trigger Article 50 and begin the process of leaving the EU in the coming days, a move which will significantly impact Northern Ireland.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • The DUP members did not attend the final day of negotiations before the deadline passed as many member’s religious beliefs prevent them from working on a Sunday. Their leader Arlene Foster, in a statement, said: “Throughout the course of Saturday Sinn Fein behaved as if they were the only participants whose mandate mattered. This cannot and will not be the basis for a successful outcome.”
  • What happens next is unclear. The rules state that Northern Secretary James Brokenshire, who chaired the talks in Belfast, should call for fresh Assembly elections, but according to the Irish Times, there this may not happen immediately, as the U.K. government takes some time to decide on its next step. Direct rule from London could be imposed once the 4 p.m. deadline passes Monday.
  • Power-sharing collapsed in January when McGuinness resigned over Foster’s role in a botched green energy scheme which is set to cost the taxpayer around half a billion pounds. In the elections which followed, the DUP remained the country’s largest party, but only just –holding just one seat more than Sinn Féin.
  • Talks over forming a new government have hinged on a number of critical issues. Sinn Féin has said it does not want Foster as first minister without a public inquiry into the renewable heat incentive (RHI) is concluded. The party is also seeking movement on the Irish language act, which would given Gaelic official status in Northern Ireland — something which is many unionists have trouble with.
  • Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams said that unionists were at a crossroads and they now need “to decide whether and when it will rise to the challenges of this time and work in genuine partnership with nationalists and republicans, and all sections of our society, on the basis of equality and respect. For everyone.”

Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan, who also took part in the talks, pointed out the need for a rapid resolution to the impasse, given the imminent Brexit negotiations.“This is a critical time for Northern Ireland. We are on the cusp of the triggering of Article 50 by the UK Government.” Northern Ireland is in the unique situation of having a land border with Ireland — which remains inside the EU. Keeping an open border is seen as vital for continued economic growth in the country.

Cover: Associated Press

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