Are Sinn Féin and the DUP about to return to power-sharing in Northern Ireland?

Theresa May has long since been criticised for taking little interest in the crisis at Stormont.


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It turns out that power-sharing in Northern Ireland was only mostly dead. After a day of negotiations brokered by Theresa May and Leo Varadkar, government may return to Stormont.

If this latest breakthrough does bear fruit, it will be a weight off Downing Street's mind. There is barely enough legislative time to complete Brexit, let alone the legislation that the resumption of direct rule would require.

What's changed is the introduction of four new people to the talks: Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill, the new leader and deputy leader of Sinn Féin respectively, Karen Bradley, the newish Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and Theresa May.

The PM has long since been criticised for taking very little interest in the crisis at Stormont, and her previous Secretary of State, James Brokenshire, had, fairly or unfairly, become seen as a wholly owned subsidiary of the DUP. (One Northern Irish politician once rolled their eyes at the mention of Brokenshire and said they could "talk to Arlene directly" if they wanted to.) May has, however briefly, involved herself, while Bradley has successfully injected new life into the process and is, for the moment at least, seen as more of a referee and less of a participant than Brokenshire was.

But of equal importance is that Sinn Féin has now finished its leadership transition from its longstanding leaders, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness and the time may be ripe as far as that party's interests are concerned to make a deal, too.

Of course, looming over all of this is Brexit with its consequences for the Irish border. We shouldn't forget that Sinn Féin opposed the Lisbon Treaty in both Ireland and the north of Ireland, while the DUP has had no objection to divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom as far as equal marriage, abortion and a range of other issues are concerned. What really matters to both is the century long constitutional question, and the significant change is that, for now at least,  both Sinn Féin and the DUP believe that a return to Stormont may be in their best interests.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.