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Why devolution in Northern Ireland is further away than ever

Julian Smith has appealed to parties to enter new talks – but they are plainly unwilling.

By Patrick Maguire

After Stormont’s first sitting in more than 1,000 days collapsed amid predictable acrimony in under an hour this afternoon, what next for devolution in Northern Ireland? Those parties didn’t turned up today – and, indeed, those that didn’t – are all asking for variations on the same thing: “intensive talks” to restore an executive.

That demand will cause more than a little consternation in Julian Smith’s office. Sources close to the Northern Ireland Secretary point out that he has engaged in frequent talks with the individual parties since his appointment in July, often over weekends and evenings. Most people at Stormont would agree that he has engaged with his brief more intensively than his immediate predecessor, Karen Bradley.

Yet there have been no multi-party talks since Smith’s appointment. Sources familiar with the process admit the impasse is “frustrating”. Talks are nowhere near advanced enough to restore devolution anytime soon.

On this afternoon’s evidence, that is no surprise. Yawning gaps remain between the five main parties with Stormont representation, and Sinn Féin and the DUP are unwilling to sit in the same room.

So, as loudly as the parties might demand round-table negotiations for the restoration of an executive, the NIO and Irish government have a clear answer: negotiations can only happen if the parties make clear they are willing to participate in them. Smith went as far as to say so publicly at the despatch box this evening: “This is an issue for the five parties and it is ultimately up to those parties to come together. Both the Irish Government and UK Government stand ready.”

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His message was stark: if the parties want devolution, they, not the NIO, will have to make the first move. And if they do not? Smith warned that Stormont salaries, among other aspects of devolution, are to be reviewed in the coming days.

But even that is unlikely to be enough to get the big two around the table. As Smith laid out his position before MPs earlier this evening, DUP members made no attempt to hide their exasperation. Indeed, Jeffrey Donaldson, their chief whip, went as far to say that the restoration of Stormont might be impossible should the Brexit deal pass in its current form (that is, without a unionist veto on customs and regulatory alignment with the EU). Sinn Fein, meanwhile, are making the opposite threat: any change to the Brexit deal will preclude their participation in an execution.

That dynamic suggests that the chances of the parties responding to Smith’s appeal are receding fast – perhaps beyond redemption.

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