FURTHER failure this week of talks between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin to reach agreement on forming a new power-sharing government for Northern Ireland was disappointing, especially for the people of the region. The talks were ‘parked’ notwithstanding the sweetener of £1bn sterling in extra expenditure over two years that the DUP had inveigled from British Prime Minister Theresa May in return for supporting her new Conservative Party-led government in Westminster.
Both the Irish and British governments were anxious to get the Northern Assembly back up and running again, having been suspended since the late Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin withdrew his party’s support of DUP leader Arlene Foster as First Minister last January over the so-called ‘cash for ash’ scandal as she refused to step aside so that an official inquiry could be conducted into her involvement, and that of other ministers, in the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, which became a millstone around the necks of taxpayers.
The resultant Assembly elections at the start of March saw big gains for Sinn Féin, who managed to mobilise the nationalist vote once again, coming from a position of having 10 seats less than the DUP to now having just one seat less than them. The three-week window the parties were given by Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, to put together a new power-sharing executive was far too optimistic and, after the talks dragging on for another few weeks, Theresa May called an ill-judged snap general election in the UK and all negotiations were put on hold until after the election, which took place on June 8th.
Fate intervened when the PM lost her party’s overall majority and the DUP became the obvious kingmakers, extracting a deal to support the new government in return for a big extra cash injection for Northern Ireland that has led to discontent in other regions of the UK, such as Scotland and Wales and even some parts of England.
Many are also displeased that Mrs May had sought and gained the support of a party like the DUP that is not known for its tolerance when is come to issues like same-sex marriage, which is still not permitted in the North. Former Conservative Party chairman Lord Patten pulled no punches in describing the DUP as ‘a toxic brand.’
While they may have had little choice in the matter, Sinn Féin stuck with the negotiations until they could get no further on the big sticking point of an Irish Language Act for the North, which the DUP opposes, mainly it opines for logistical reasons, but there is obviously more to it than that. This leaves the region still without a government, so the fear arises that Northern Ireland’s strategic interests – and indeed those of the whole island – may not get the prominence they need in the ongoing Brexit negotiations.
There is a supreme irony in the stances of the two main parties on the issue of Britain leaving the European Union with the DUP wanting to see the process through as quickly as possible in a bid to strengthen the North’s attachment to the United Kingdom, despite the fact that the majority of the voters there expressed their preference in last year’s Brexit referendum to remain in the EU. Sinn Féin championed the remain side and saw the outcome of the referendum in the North as an opportunity to advance its case for a united Ireland within the EU, but a border poll on this has been deemed premature by both the British and Irish governments.
In retrospect, it was hardly likely that the DUP was going to make any major concessions to Sinn Féin the week before the emotive loyalist marching season in the North is due to start. With direct rule from Westminster put in abeyance for the time being, pending further negotiations after the summer, the two disparate main parties need to get on urgently then with acting in the best interests of all of the people of Northern Ireland who voted them in.