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Even without a Tory-DUP deal, power-sharing in Northern Ireland looks doomed

The UK government's potential confidence and supply arrangement could well suit Sinn Fein as well as it suits the DUP.

With the DUP in negotiations to prop up a minority Conservative government, focus has drifted from the other set of talks the party is engaged in: those aimed at restoring the Northern Irish executive, which collapsed in February and still looks a very long way from restoration. James Brokenshire, who has kept his job as Northern Ireland secretary, has set a "final and immovable" deadline of June 29 for a deal. 

In some respects the deal is nothing new. Many of those tuning into Northern Irish politics for the first time are asking whether the deal undermines the government’s ability to act as a neutral arbiter in the talks to come.

As far as most politicians at Stormont are concerned, that question was settled some months ago: it can’t.

In the last parliament the government relied on the DUP’s eight votes to insulate itself against the whims of its more mutinous backbenchers. That fact was enough to create an abiding impression at Stormont that James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland Secretary, is a biased and partisan mediator. Though Irish foreign minister Charlie Flanagan argued this morning that the Tories’ confidence and supply deal need not necessarily compromise Brokenshire, it is ultimately the perception that matters.

So the prospect of a formalised deal between May and the unionists is, in the immediate term at least, a boon for Sinn Fein (who, as the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland, must enter coalition with the DUP).

It is no surprise that Gerry Kelly, a senior assembly member, told reporters today that the party was unconcerned by their rivals' support for the incoming government. Sinn Fein's ability to play hardball in the power-sharing talks of recent months – which notionally resume tomorrow – has depended on their ability to cast Arlene Foster as the sole author of the executive’s collapse and the stalemate that followed. This arrangement will allow them to do so. 

The republicans are playing a high stakes game: they know the mandate they won in March’s snap assembly election, which saw the unionist parties lose their overall majority for the first time ever, was as much a mandate to reject Stormont as it was to salvage it.

But Foster, whose refusal to resign over her role in the £500 million Renewable Heat Incentive scandal and reputation for truculence on issues such as equal marriage and legal recognition for the Irish language, is no longer an electoral millstone around her party’s neck. The DUP’s commanding general election performance proves that much. Having made two gains and increased its number of MPs to ten, it now holds a majority of Northern Irish MPs. Its rehabilitated leader has charted an emollient tack in recent months and now strikes conciliatory poses: first attending Martin McGuinness’ funeral (Foster’s father was shot by the IRA), then visiting an Irish-medium school.

These were not empty gestures, nor can they have been easy ones to make. But they were astute politically. Sinn Fein, which has claimed the DUP’s lack of “respect” makes reforming the executive near-impossible, risked looking like they were preventing the restoration of devolved government for the sake of empty grievances.

It has plenty of legitimate grievances now. Though Michelle O’Neill stressed earlier today that her party’s focus “remains on entering talks to re-establish an Executive that delivers for all on the basis of equality, respect and integrity”, the DUP-Tory pact will inevitably allow Sinn Fein to argue that goal is unachievable.

They are already emboldened: the party has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself from the coming talks in favour of an independent mediator, preferably from abroad. This is anathema to unionists – who resent the implication that Northern Ireland is anything other than an integral part of the UK – and Sinn Fein knows it. Legitimate though concerns over Brokenshire’s partiality are, Gerry Adams might as well ask for talks to be convened in Las Vegas.

Existing disagreements look set to be exacerbated too. A new settlement for dealing with unsolved Troubles cases remains an area of bitter, near-insoluble contention. On this issue Brokenshire has moved in lockstep with the DUP, who believe that existing investigations focus disproportionately on police and forces veterans.

Brokenshire has promised to make good on promises for a “victim-centred approach” to legacy issues but the influence of the DUP means the definition of victim is unlikely to be acceptable to Sinn Fein. So too the Tory manifesto, whose section on Northern Ireland promised “new bodies for addressing the legacy of the past in fair, balanced and proportionate ways which do not unfairly focus on former members of the Armed Forces and the Royal Ulster Constabulary”.

Should the new government make this a priority – and there is every reason to believe it will – then there is little chance of Sinn Fein agreeing to serve in an executive. In February, Brokenshire told the Commons that he believed “that with hard work on all sides the outstanding areas of disagreement [on legacy issues] are bridgeable”. A situation whereby the government relies on the DUP to survive gives neither they nor Sinn Fein – the two sides that ultimately matter – much incentive to work very hard at all.

Yawning gaps on equal marriage, the Irish language, and the special post-Brexit status to which the DUP are opposed remain. For Sinn Fein to yoke itself to the facilitators of Tory government would look very bad indeed – especially with the prospect of a snap election in the Irish republic still very much alive. These are not new issues, but the Tories have injected them with renewed potency.

Now, as negotiations whose deadline has been extended four times already begin again, neither side has much incentive to make good on their promises to restore devolved government. And with James Brokenshire running out of options, Ulster's electors might yet face their fifth national election in a little over a year. Save for Sinn Fein and DUP gains at the expense of their smaller rivals - after Thursday all but wiped out at Westminster level - there are unlikely to be many winners.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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