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26 April 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 2:19pm

Is there any hope for power-sharing in Northern Ireland?

By Patrick Maguire

The government is to convene a new round of talks to restore devolved government to Northern Ireland in the wake of the murder of journalist Lyra McKee, Theresa May and her Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar, have announced.

In a joint statement this afternoon, the prime minister and taoiseach said they had heard “the unmistakable message to all political leaders that people across Northern Ireland want to see a new momentum for political progress” at McKee’s funeral earlier this week.

Fresh talks aimed at restoring a Stormont executive after an absence of two years and four months will commence on 7 May, five days after next Thursday’s local elections. Simon Coveney, Varadkar’s deputy and foreign minister, said Northern Ireland’s parties owed McKee’s memory the restoration of power-sharing. But is that resolution possible?

As much as there is a longstanding and genuine desire on the part of much of Northern Ireland’s electorate to see the work of the assembly and executive resume, it is not the case that either Sinn Fein or the DUP – both of whom have a veto over the formation of any devolved government – believe that alone is sufficient grounds to agree a deal that will involve either or both parties making concessions that fly in the face of what they believe to be their political interest. 

Talking up the chances of an agreement, Karen Bradley, the Northern Ireland Secretary, pointed to the fact that the leaders of both parties shared a platform in Derry’s Creggan estate after McKee’s death as evidence that a deal could be reached. 

But while it is true that all mainstream parties in Northern Ireland were united in their revulsion at last week’s killing – and offered forthright condemnation in a rare joint statement – there has been no indication that either Sinn Fein or the DUP is willing to embrace that nascent spirit of collaboration and compromise in a fresh round of talks. 

The parties, by their own admission, still occupy mutually exclusive positions. Sinn Fein will not enter government – a prerequisite for restoring the assembly – without a guarantee of standalone legislation to protect the Irish language. 

The DUP, meanwhile, are demanding the immediate restoration of the executive and with it the assembly alongside a parallel process to deal with the outstanding issues prioritised by their republican counterparts – namely the rights of Irish speakers, equal marriage, and a new bill of rights.

Barring unforeseen concessions and a major deviation from past form from either side, those two positions are irreconcilable. 

Then there are two separate but nonetheless important questions. The first is whether Bradley, who has lost the confidence of all five of Northern Ireland’s main parties, will be trusted by those involved as an honest or, frankly, competent broker (strikingly, May seems to imply she is willing to involve herself personally in her statement with Varadkar).

The second and most significant is whether either of the big two’s leaders, particularly Arlene Foster, can get their supporters to wear any agreement if major compromises are made. A short, sharp backlash from the loyalist community scuppered a deal last February. Should the DUP end up behind Sinn Fein in terms of council seats next week, it may well be that any compromise on devolution will be seen as the 5-0 victory Foster has warned the republicans must not be able to claim – and thus end up unattainable altogether.

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