Lyra McKee’s murder has pushed Northern Ireland’s parties back to the negotiating table

But odds of agreement and a return to power sharing still look remote.

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The funeral of Lyra McKee, the 29 year old journalist murdered by the “New IRA” in Derry, was a time of reflection on a life cut cruelly short. For many, it also offered a moment to reflect on Northern Ireland’s peace process and fears of decaying community relations in the two years since power-sharing at Stormont collapsed.


In his funeral address, Catholic priest Father Martin Magill gave voice to a question which has been simmering in the minds of many people here since McKee’s murder on 18 April. Looking at the politicians assembled side by side in the pews before him - DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Féin President and Vice President MaryLou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill - he commended them for coming together but demanded: “Why in God’s name does it take the death of a 29 year old woman with her whole life in front of her to get to this point?” Before he could even finish the sentence, the mourners burst into spontaneous applause, followed by a standing ovation. 

The moment captured much of the mood in Northern Ireland at present; a deep sense of anxiety about where the peace process currently is and a sense of urgency about ensuring it is not left adrift for much longer. The region has been without a government since January 2017, when Sinn Féin pulled out of government with the DUP, citing concerns about the latter’s role in a botched green energy scheme in which some half a billion pounds of tax payers’ money appears to have been misspent.

Under the unique system set out under the Good Friday Agreement, no one party can govern Northern Ireland alone and instead a mandatory coalition of both nationalist and unionist politicians is required. Therefore, without the agreement of Sinn Féin, the DUP cannot return to government and vice versa. In the two and a half years since the most recent incarnation of that system collapsed, there have been numerous rounds of negotiations between the two parties to see if they can reach an agreement, all without success.

In the days since McKee’s murder, concerns have been voiced that the political vacuum at Stormont may be being exploited by armed groups who cite the collapse of the government as proof that democratic processes have failed and so violence is now justified as a political tool. Many fear that the ongoing stasis is facilitating a slow unravelling of the institutions which the Good Friday Agreement established as an alternative to the violence of the Troubles.


Two days after Fr Magill’s funeral speech, Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley and her counterpart in Ireland, the Tánaiste Simon Coveney, announced new talks will begin on 7th May, in an apparent bid to capitalise on the current sense of urgency in order to create momentum towards breaking the impasse.


However, a successful outcome to the talks is still unlikely. Although the political leaders joined the standing ovation and applause during McKee's funeral, it appears to have been because they were put on the spot by the priest’s unexpected direct address to them. Within 24 hours, both parties sent out politicians to do local media interviews in which they were much vaguer about talks and reiterated their previous hardline stances. 


The deadlock currently centres on a dispute about the status which should be ascribed to the Irish language in Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin, as Irish Republicans, support the introduction of legislation to protect and promote the language. Meanwhile, the DUP, as British loyalists are opposed to any such legislation as they feel it undermines what they consider to be the region’s Britishness. Both parties reiterated their stances; Sinn Féin won’t return to Stormont without the legislation, the DUP won’t return with it. Since 2017, both parties have repeated these irreconcilable stances in the strongest possible terms, meaning a breakthrough will involve a humiliating climb down for one of them. 


This new round of talks also comes at a tense time in Northern Ireland’s political calendar. Local elections are being held on 2 May, with European elections due to follow suit on 23 May. This means the 7 May talks will occur in between the two elections, when the parties traditionally elevate the antagonism between them as they enter campaign mode.

A further stumbling block is Arlene Foster’s weak position as DUP leader. She is an MLA (member of the Stormont parliament) rather than an MP, and as the centre of power within her party has shifted towards Westminster through their confidence-and-supply arrangement with the Conservatives, she has found herself undercut within the DUP hierarchy by her Westminster colleagues. This was evidenced in February 2018 when the DUP and Sinn Féin appeared to be on the cusp of finally reaching an agreement. It involved passing Irish language legislation under another name, thereby allowing both the DUP and Sinn Féin to claim victory over the other. However, Foster failed to sell it to her own party colleagues and had to pull out of the deal.


Furthermore, against a backdrop of Brexit, upon which the parties also bitterly disagree, the usual antagonism between them has only spiralled. Many had hoped that once the UK left the EU on 29 March this year, the prospect of an agreement might be closer with this crucially controversial issue taken off the table. With the Brexit date delayed, the issue lingers indefinitely.


Both parties, however, will be keen to engage in the pretence of sincere engagement in the process as they sense the public mood leans towards an agreement being reached. Both will want to blame the other if no deal is found, while appearing to be the reasonable ones.


It is possible that an agreement could be reached by one of the parties agreeing to back down on their long established red lines over the Irish language. They could perhaps save face in such a u-turn by framing it as a difficult decision arrived upon in order to put the greater good of the peace process ahead of their own political egos. Such a move would be rare in Northern Ireland’s stark and bullish political landscape but could be the only way to save the Stormont institutions and show a powerful display of unionist-nationalist unity at a moment many consider to be make or break. 

Siobhán Fenton is a Belfast-based writer covering gender, politics and Northern Ireland.