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13 December 2019updated 08 Jun 2021 11:03am

What does the election result mean for power-sharing in Northern Ireland?

By Patrick Maguire

If the exit poll is anywhere close to correct, then few parties will have had quite as bad a night as the Democratic Unionists – and that is before one even considers results in Northern Ireland itself.

The DUP held the balance of power in the last parliament, and hoped to do so again. Its next best-case scenario, as Nigel Dodds told me in Belfast last month, was a Conservative majority. In the 2015 parliament, David Cameron relied on the then eight-strong DUP parliamentary party to bolster his slender majority of 13.

This time, however, neither will be forthcoming. That means Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, and with it a border in the Irish Sea, will be imposed on them. Add to that the near-certainty of a loss to the SDLP in South Belfast, and the possibility of two more in North Belfast and East Belfast, and the DUP is likely to wake up shorn of its influence.

What does that mean for the moribund Stormont Assembly and the power-sharing executive (between the DUP and Sinn Féin), which in January will enter its third year out of commission? Julian Smith, the Northern Ireland Secretary, will convene a new round of talks tomorrow, with a deadline of 13 January for agreement.

Sources at the Northern Ireland Office are optimistic that the dramatic shift in the balance of power – both in Belfast and Westminster – will induce the DUP to compromise on the Irish language, the issue that has impeded agreement more than any other.

Sinn Féin too are sounding more emollient than ever, having dropped their insistence that Arlene  Foster – whose mishandling of the so-called cash-for-ash scandal precipitated the fall of devolution – must step aside as first minister before any executive is formed.

So it is no surprise that those tasked with mediating the new round of talks are cautiously optimistic. If an executive is reformed before the January deadline, then it will first and foremost be a sign that the DUP has acclimatised to the new political reality. There is a reason a 12-point plan for Stormont formed the centrepiece of the DUP’s election campaign

There is, however, a reasonably large caveat to be found at Westminster – or, more precisely, around the cabinet table. It is not a given that Smith, a sometime critic of Johnson’s approach to Brexit, will survive as Northern Ireland Secretary. Indeed, some allies fear that he will not.

But, given the tight timetable he has laid out for the restoration of devolution, he is likelier than not to at least see this round of talks through.

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