AS we move deeper into the mire that is Brexit, the re-establishment of a Northern Ireland Assembly was never more urgent. The ante in this regard was upped considerably by Leo Varadkar on his first visit to Belfast as Taoiseach at the start of August and, since then, there have been tentative efforts, albeit unsuccessful so far, to resume talks on a power-sharing arrangement between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party.
It is six months this weekend since the Northern Ireland Assembly elections, which were called in the wake of the collapse of the executive last January after the late Martin McGuinness withdrew his support for it by resigning as Deputy First Minister, and there is still no government in place. This is affecting the region politically and economically at a time when there was never a greater necessity to have an Assembly in place, especially to deal with the massive implications that Brexit will have for Northern Ireland.
The first deadline to agree a power-sharing agreement within three weeks of the election was over-ambitious and during the subsequent extended negotiating period given to the main parties by Northern Ireland Secretary of State James Brokenshire, British Prime Minister Theresa May called her ill-fated snap general election, causing the talks to be suspended. Another attempt at forming a new executive in the wake of the British election in June also failed after the political landscape changed significantly when the DUP struck a deal with Theresa May to prop up her Conservative Party-led minority government.
The intention of suspending further talks at the end of June was to give the parties time to reflect on how they could resolve the issues that prevented them from entering into a power-sharing agreement and with a view to resuming negotiations at the end of the summer. On his visit to Belfast, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, in emphasising that the restoration of a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland was necessary to try and achieve the best outcome for the island of Ireland after Brexit, stated that he and Theresa May were ‘willing to drop everything’ to help end the political deadlock – but only if they believe it will make a difference.
However, the stand-off between Sinn Féin and the DUP is continuing as the same stumbling blocks to agreement still persist. When Sinn Féin’s leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, sought to get the talks up and running earlier that originally planned, she was accused by the DUP of trying to pull ‘a stunt’ as no basis for them had been agreed, so there is obviously no mutual consent yet to their resumption.
It seems pointless for the British and Irish governments to try to force the issue unless there are some signs of a willingness by both Sinn Féin and the DUP to reach a workable compromise. Talks about talks have been taking place and, hopefully, they will start next week, but one has to wonder how long more can the governments’ patience can last, even though nobody – not even the DUP – really wants a return to direct rule by London either?
Northern Ireland needs to have the voice of its own Assembly heard loud and clear in order to get the best outcome it can for the region for when the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. This was not something the majority of people in the North who voted to remain in the EU in last year’s Brexit referendum wanted, but they are stuck with it for now.
If she becomes First Minister again, the Brexit issue will be problematic for Arlene Foster as a majority of the Assembly members elected – 47 of the 90 – are against leaving the EU. She also recently rebuked our Taoiseach for saying he still hoped that the Brexit would eventually not go ahead. This was stated by him in the context of a warning he issued that ‘every single aspect of life in Northern Ireland could be affected by Brexit,’ which he described as ‘the challenge of this generation.’
Part of the price of the DUP supporting the new British government was a promise of an extra £1bn in capital expenditure for Northern Ireland over the next two years. However, in order to lay hands on the money and administer its spending, a Northern Ireland Assembly needs to be in place, which means it could go a-begging if agreement is not reached soon.
Of greater concern is what might fill the political vacuum in the North if the new Assembly is not formed.