Northern Ireland: Time running out for power-sharing

It is a sad commentary on the leadership of both parties that as we approach the 20th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement the power-sharing institutions established under its terms have never looked so fragile

Tánaiste Simon Coveney was right to raise the prospect of the British and Irish governments making decisions for Northern Ireland if the two main parties in the region cannot find a way to restore the lapsed power-sharing institutions. Photograph: Ints Kalnins/Reuters

Tánaiste Simon Coveney was right to raise the prospect of the British and Irish governments making decisions for Northern Ireland if the two main parties in the region cannot find a way to restore the lapsed power-sharing institutions. Photograph: Ints Kalnins/Reuters

 

Tánaiste Simon Coveney was right to raise the prospect of the British and Irish governments making decisions for Northern Ireland if the two main parties in the region cannot find a way to restore the lapsed power-sharing institutions.

It is now almost a year since the Northern Executive collapsed and negotiations between the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin since last January have failed to reach a conclusion. This situation cannot continue indefinitely and the two governments will have to seize the initiative if the parties continue to indulge in meaningless point-scoring rather than engaging in real dialogue.

It made sense to give the DUP and Sinn Féin ample time to try and resolve their differences but there is no excuse for further delay. The Tánaiste placed the responsibility for finding a way through the impasse on DUP leader Arlene Foster and her Sinn Féin counterpart in the North, Michelle O’Neill, saying that Northern Ireland “desperately needs their leadership right now.”

So far there has been little indication that either of them is prepared to take the political risks that are the mark of real leadership. If they cannot quickly discover the capacity to compromise there will be no alternative to putting devolution on hold for the foreseeable future.

It is a sad commentary on the leadership of both parties that as we approach the 20th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement the power-sharing institutions established under its terms have never looked so fragile. What makes matters worse is that, with Brexit drawing ever closer, Northern Ireland is facing a moment of truth that will have an impact for generations to come.

Never was there a more appropriate time for all the parties in the North to unite around their common interests and come up with agreed proposals on practical issues such as agriculture and trade. Brexit has spawned a new set of problems in relation to national identity for both unionism and nationalism. Unionists fear solutions, no mater how practical, that appear to threaten their future in the UK, while nationalists see an opportunity to move in the direction of their long-term goal of a united Ireland.

It is a pity that differing national aspirations are adding to an already difficult situation and getting in the way of finding the best solution to the problems the North will face after Brexit. The return of direct rule from Westminister, and with it a role for the Government in representing the interests of Northern nationalists, is far from the ideal solution to the current impasse.

Coveney was correct to say that such a development had the capacity to create further tensions, but if Sinn Féin and the DUP cannot find a way of working together the two governments have no choice.

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