LONDON – Politicians in Northern Ireland have until 4.00 p.m. on Thursday afternoon to reach an agreement in order to form an executive and return the devolved power-sharing government to the region, or it could face direct rule from Westminster.
James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary set the deadline, but it appears that a deal will not be made between the two main parties, Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party before time runs out.
If an agreement is not reached by 4.00 p.m. on Thursday, there is a possibility that direct rule from Westminster would return for the first time in a decade, or another election for the Northern Ireland Assembly could be called.
The main divide between Sinn Fein and the DUP is the issue of language and culture, with Sinn Fein wanting the Irish language to be made legally on the same level as English. The republican party also want to guarantee equal rights for the LGBT community in Northern Ireland.
The DUP instead wants to incorporate Gaelic into a wider piece of legislation that also preserves the rights of Ulster Scots and all cultures. It has told Sinn Fein to stop “high-wire acts” and focus on forming a government.
On Wednesday John O’Dowd, a Sinn Fein negotiator said that these discussions had “failed to resolve the issues which brought down the [devolved] institutions on January – rights, equality and respect.”
O’Dowd called on the British and Irish governments, who facilitate the talks, “to inject energy into these talks, to inject leadership into talks, and ensure the outstanding issues are resolved in the timescale we have left to us.”
Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the Dáil, the Irish parliament that “it is important that Northern Ireland has a unique voice when it comes to Brexit. It should not just rely on Dublin and London to deal with these matters. It behoves the parties now to form that executive and to adopt a common position in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland.”
Northern Ireland has been without an executive since January when deputy first minister Martin McGuinness resigned in protest at the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal, which brought down the government and triggered an assembly election.
If the deadline at 4.00 p.m. passes without an agreement on a power-sharing deal, Tory minister Brokenshire has said there will be “profound and serious” implications. The Northern Ireland Assembly is scheduled to meet at noon to elect a speaker.
It raises the prospect of direct rule from Westminister for the first time since the St Andrews’ Agreement was signed in 2007.
The other possibilities are that another assembly election is called, which would be the fifth vote for the people of Northern Ireland in just over a year, or that the current assembly is put in “warm storage” while civil servants run the devolved institutions before talks resume.
The £1 billion for Northern Ireland that was agreed through the Tory-DUP ‘confidence and supply’ deal is not under threat, as it would be shared out across the region by the government in Westminster rather than the devolved assembly.