Stormont talks Q&A: What are the main issues on the table?
Parties again enter talks in latest bid to restore Northern Executive and Assembly
A taxi sits outside Parliament Buildings in Stormont, Belfast. File photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
So, the Northern Ireland parties are talking again?
Yes, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and Northern Secretary Karen Bradley hosted round-table talks with the five main Northern Ireland parties at Stormont on Tuesday afternoon. The talks involved the DUP, Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Ulster Unionist Party and Alliance. The aim is to restore the Northern Executive and Assembly as soon as possible, with Coveney mentioning a target date of mid-June.
Remind me, why the need for such talks?
Devolution crashed in January 2017 when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister in a row with the DUP and its leader Arlene Foster over the calamitous Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, the mismanagement of which could cost the Northern Ireland taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds.
Who has been in charge of Northern Ireland since then?
Its civil service effectively, with some assistance from Ms Bradley. She is very reluctant to go to British direct rule because once that happens it would be very difficult to reinstate Stormont, not to mention the additional polarisation it would engender.
Does that mean there has been political deadlock for almost two and a half years?
Correct, although there were several attempts to bring back Stormont since then, but they all failed. The parties came close in February last year when, according to several sources, the DUP and Sinn Féin cracked a deal on what has been the most contentious of the problems; the Sinn Féin demand for an Irish language act. Broadly what was agreed was an interlocking series of legislation dealing with the Irish language, Ulster Scots and respecting diversity. The DUP failed, or didn’t have time, to sell the deal to its grassroots and it all quickly unravelled.
Why are unionists antipathetic to the Irish language?
Not all but quite a number have an aversion to the Irish language, buying the argument from some unionist politicians that it would “undermine the Britishness of Northern Ireland”. Proposals for an Irish language act somehow feed into the unionist siege mentality, notwithstanding that there is similar Welsh and Scots Gaelic language legislation in Wales and Scotland.
Are there other big issues?
There is a whole range of matters to be addressed, such as: making Stormont sustainable and more transparent and accountable; reforming the civil service; reforming the petition of concern; the possible liberalising of abortion law; and introducing same sex marriage.
What are the major issues?
Probably the Irish language and same sex marriage; if they could be resolved, other matters could fall into place.
Has there been any progress on those two matters?
Well, the interconnected language and diversity proposals from February 2018 could be revisited. While some unionists are resistant, Ms Foster at her annual party conference in November spoke about the need for a “cultural deal”. Perhaps that umbrella term for language and identity might offer the way forward.
And gay marriage?
Possibilities here, too. Hitherto the DUP has used the petition of concern to block the introduction of such legislation. The petition – a vetoing mechanism to block certain legislation – requires the signature of 30 of the Assembly’s 90 members. The DUP with 28 MLAs are two short of that number and would require the signature of Jim Allister of the Traditional Unionist Voice, plus one of the 10 UUP MLAs to get to 30. It might be difficult persuading one UUP MLA to sign up, so the legislation could come in by majority vote. If it is blocked it might be for Westminster, as Sinn Féin senior negotiator Conor Murphy suggested on Tuesday, to then bring in the legislation.
We have been here so often; is there are any real chance of a deal this time?
The British and Irish governments called these talks on the back of the apparent public yearning for political compromise and progress as expressed after the New IRA murder in Derry of journalist Lyra McKee. All the political leaders agreed that was the message they heard on the doorsteps in the local elections just past. Generally when it comes to political predictions in Northern Ireland the best attitude to have is one of pessimism. But the problems are far from irresolvable. Maybe the politicians will surprise us.