Politics in Northern Ireland is in stasis, if not stalemate. The collapse of the power-sharing talks on Monday between nationalists Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist party has raised two prospects: another round of assembly elections or direct rule from London. The latter is unpalatable to both sides. Just as the UK government is about to fire the starting gun on Brexit, it does not have the political capacity or will to run Northern Ireland too. For the DUP, direct rule would likely bolster Sinn Fein, providing further ammunition for its claims about Westminster’s imperial ambitions.
There appears to be little appetite for more elections either. The result of the recent assembly elections produced a tight result, with the DUP just one seat ahead of Sinn Fein. A further ballot is unlikely to produce a clearer outcome.
Although both parties appear resolute, James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has made the right decision to hand budget control to civil servants and give both sides another couple of weeks to broker a deal. As Vincent Boland has reported, progress on policy has been made behind the scenes and an agreement still seems possible. Yet stumbling blocks remain.
The biggest is Arlene Foster, the current leader of the DUP. Her role in the “cash for ash” subsidies scandal, combined with the party’s election losses, should have led to her resignation. But Ms Foster appears impervious to criticism and now that Sinn Fein is calling for her to go, there seems little prospect of her stepping down of her own accord. If Northern Ireland does go through another round of elections and the DUP loses more seats, her position might become untenable. Or she might decide to accede to some of Sinn Fein’s legislative demands and find a deal that works.
But what makes the current stand-off particularly acute is Brexit. The DUP’s decision to support Britain’s departure from the EU made sense for the party’s Westminster MPs, who were allying themselves with much of the Conservative party. However, in Northern Ireland, the prospect of a hard border and questions over the customs union have hindered the party. It is too late now and Sinn Fein have taken advantage of the uncertainty.
One of the reasons the current negotiations have failed is the death of Martin McGuinness. The former deputy first minister and Irish Republican Army commander was a formidable negotiator, but willing to compromise and concede. Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, is much more ideological and intransigent, and Michelle O’Neill, the party’s leader in Northern Ireland, does not have McGuinness’s skills or experience.
Despite these concerns, some sort of agreement, eventually, looks inevitable. Sinn Fein and the DUP are enjoying being back in the spotlight. But both parties know that they will have to get on with governing some day. The expectation (or hope) in Westminster is that once the triggering of Article 50 is out of the way, inertia will begin to give way to activity.