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Why a Northern Ireland power-sharing deal probably won’t be reached anytime soon

The DUP's £1.5bn agreement with Theresa May has changed the balance of political risk.

By Stephen Bush

The deadline for re-establishing devolved government in Northern Ireland has ended without agreement. Again.

Who’s to blame? Arlene Foster gets her side of the story out in a column for the Belfast Telegraph – as well as bigging up that £1.5bn bounty she negotiated for Northern Ireland. The problem, she says, is Sinn Féin’s winner takes all approach to the negotiations. Sinn Féin’s spokesman Conor Murphy says that the problem is the DUP’s attitude, and that Theresa May’s deal has “emboldened” them to refuse to make compromises.

Regardless of who you blame, the truth is that the £1.5bn deal has changed the balance of political risk. If there is another election, Arlene Foster goes into the contest not as the architect of the Renewable Heat Incentive – the environmental subsidy that was so poorly designed that businesses fitted boilers into empty rooms in order to claim the cash bonanza – but as the negotiator who won a 5 per cent increase out of the UK government.

But there might not be another election, for two reasons. The first is that whatever happens, another vote is highly likely to once again put the DUP and Sinn Féin first and second. The second is that the Secretary of State for Boundless Optimism, James Brokenshire, still believes that a deal can be struck, and he’s extended the deadline for talks. (Again.) That he is close to being in a minority of one on that issue is neither here nor there.

But Brokenshire’s less than stellar turn as Secretary of State speaks to the Conservative government’s vulnerability on the DUP issue. Without a majority, but as the only party capable of putting together some kind of arrangement to get enough votes to pass anything, the Tories were always going to have to send more cash to Northern Ireland than they were before. (They will also have to find some money and time for the Liberal Democrats’ pet projects from time to time. Sam Coates’ story in today’s Times that Gavin Barwell, May’s chief of staff, met with his Liberal Democrat opposite number has been denied by that party, as you’d expect, but sooner or later the Conservatives will find themselves getting their begging bowl out for their former coalition partners.)

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But in making a deal publicly, the government gave the DUP the whip hand – and may have contaminated both the Conservative brand and sold the pass on the argument for austerity into the bargain.

What that revealed is that Downing Street – and by extension, May’s close ally at the Northern Ireland Office – doesn’t really get Northern Ireland. Which is why, of all the power brokers, it is only the British government that seriously expects that an agreement over restoring the devolved government at Stormont will be reached anytime soon.