Negotiations will continue today in Belfast in the hope of reaching agreement on the formation of a new government in the province before the legal deadline of 4pm (1am Friday in eastern Australia). The talks involve the five major local parties plus the British and Irish governments, but the key is agreement between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin, respectively the largest unionist and nationalist forces.
Northern Ireland has been in a constitutional limbo since the fall of the previous government in January, over a scandal concerning a renewable energy scheme. Elections at the beginning of March returned the DUP as again the largest party, but by only a tiny margin.
Subsequent talks to reassemble the power-sharing coalition were inconclusive, and then had to be broken off when an early British election was called for this month. But not only did that fail to assist, it has made things considerably more complicated.
Ostensibly, the differences between the parties are about local issues: a particular stumbling block, according to the BBC, is Sinn Féin’s demand for a new Irish Language Act. But bigger problems overshadow the talks, both from London and from Brussels.
The election three weeks ago deprived prime minister Theresa May of her majority, forcing her to rely on the DUP’s ten MPs. Earlier this week she reached an agreement under which the DUP, without actually joining the government, will support it on issues of confidence in return for regular consultation – and piles of extra money [link added] for Northern Ireland.
That should ensure stability at Westminster, but it means that when it comes to government in Northern Ireland, the British government is no longer a neutral party: it is bound hand and foot to one of the players. That’s obviously making it harder for Sinn Féin to trust the integrity of the process. Among other things, it will be worried that the extra money will be spent in ways that prop up DUP support rather than in the interests of the province as a whole.
But the biggest issue on May’s agenda, of course, is the terms of exit from the European Union, and Northern Ireland has an especially large stake in that.
The majority of the DUP’s voters backed “leave” in last year’s referendum, and it has promised to support May’s negotiating position. At the same time, however, it knows that this is not popular: the province as a whole voted 55.8% for “remain”, and the issue is clearly one of the things driving the growth in support for Sinn Féin.
That will just get worse if the result is the “hard Brexit” that most of the Conservative Party is committed to, with departure from the single market and an end to free movement of people. That would mean customs and immigration barriers on the border between the North and the rest of Ireland, which would infuriate voters and be a massive electoral gift to the nationalists.
But the DUP is in a cleft stick, because its whole raison d’être is based on the notion that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom, so it is adamantly opposed to any sort of special treatment for the province – to anything that might suggest it was somehow less British, or more connected to the republic, than the rest of the country. And its new-found power at Westminster will enable it to insist on that position.
That in turn makes the current brinksmanship in the negotiations easier to understand. Sinn Féin, tantalisingly close to winning a plurality and claiming the position of first minister for itself, may well fancy its chances if another early election is the result. The DUP, on the other hand, might feel that it would be better off taking its chances at the polls now rather than waiting for the effects of Brexit to bite in a couple of years’ time.
Neither, however, will want the blame for failure to do a deal, particularly with May’s example for them of the unpopularity of early elections. So it may well be that sometime tonight the two sides will again manage to paper over their differences.
But the big issues confronting Northern Ireland are not going away.