In Depth

Northern Ireland: power games and political players

In Depth: Forget Brexit - the 13-month stalemate at Stormont may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back

If Theresa May thought this week’s invitation to Downing Street would push Sinn Fein and the DUP to resolve Northern Ireland’s power-sharing gridlock, the Prime Minister sorely underestimated her guests.

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald was not impressed with May’s advice to “reflect” rather than reconvene negotiations, TheJournal.ie says. The British government has “no plan, no map” to restore power-sharing, McDonald told reporters.

Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster wondered aloud why the PM had even bothered to fly into Belfast last week, calling the visit a “bit of a distraction” for politicians who had “work to do”, Sky News reports.

Sinn Fein and the DUP are at loggerheads over three key issues: same-sex marriage; funding for inquests for those killed during the Troubles; and Sinn Fein’s desire for legislation on the Irish language.

With Stormont all but padlocked, The Week examines the politicians, power games and possible solutions to the paralysis in Northern Ireland.

Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Fein

Mary Lou McDonald took over as Sinn Fein leader on 10 February following the resignation of her mentor, Gerry Adams. The 48-year-old was educated at Trinity College Dublin and worked as a researcher for the Institute of European Affairs before becoming Sinn Fein’s first Member of the European Parliament.

In her first speech as party leader, McDonald threw down the gauntlet, pledging to win a referendum on Irish unity and warning that there can be no hard border in Ireland post-Brexit. “Ireland will not be the collateral damage in the political games and antics of Tories in London,” she said. 

McDonald closed her speech with the Irish language phrase “Tiocfaidh ar la” (“our day will come”) - a slogan long-associated with the Provisional IRA, according to the Irish Independent.

Yesterday, McDonald told Theresa May to stop reflecting and start leading, saying: “It’s not her words, it’s her actions: we’ve had words until we’ve nearly given each other migraines.”

Sinn Fein’s proposed solution: McDonald wants the PM to reconvene the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, a joint body that resolves non-devolved issues. The Conference would give Anglo-Irish leaders a structure to re-establish power sharing. Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair used it during the 2002-07 collapse to put Stormont back together, notes The Irish Times.

Arlene Foster, DUP

Arlene Foster defected from the Ulster Unionists to the DUP in 2004, and took over as leader in December 2015. The 47-year-old has been involved in politics since her days studying law at Queen’s University Belfast.

The former solicitor’s tough negotiating style was evident when she pried £1bn out of Theresa May in June 2017 in a deal to prop up the minority Tory government. The PM may well live to regret the arrangement. Foster “brutally” exposed May’s political weakness to Brussels during Brexit talks in December when the DUP initially refused to sign off on a UK-EU agreement over the Irish border, preventing talks moving to the next stage, says The Guardian.

The DUP’s proposed solution: Foster wants Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley to declare direct rule as soon as possible. This would allow the UK to set a budget and take key decisions impacting schools, infrastructure and hospitals. If May bows to Foster, however, it will further complicate the PM’s shaky confidence-and-supply coalition deal with the DUP, since May is supposed to be impartial in Northern Ireland.

Karen Bradley, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Karen Bradley is a relative novice on Northern Ireland, having been appointed to the brief on 8 January. She is a trained accountant, studying maths at Imperial College London before working for Deloitte & Touche and KPMG. Since her election as MP in 2006, the 47-year-old has bounced through various departments, serving in the Government Whips’ Office, the Home Office, and most recently, as secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport.

Bradley’s proposed solution: asked last week whether imposing direct rule on Northern Ireland from Westminster was the only option, Bradley told reporters that “the best and right thing for the people of Northern Ireland is that we get devolved government”, the Belfast Telegraph reports. However, she added that the Government will continue to consider “all options”, according to the BBC.

Irish Taoiseach Irish Leo Varadkar

The Dublin-born 39-year-old Irish PM is Ireland’s youngest ever leader. He is a seasoned politician, however, having become a councillor at 24 and serving later as a minister in the departments of housing, agriculture and defence, reports The Irish Times.

“He has built up a high media profile - descriptions of him as a ‘sharpshooter’ and ‘straight-talker’ are common,” the BBC says. But enemies of his Fine Gael party portray him as a “right-wing ideologue”, pointing to a recent campaign against benefits cheats. Democratic Unionist MP Sammy Wilson says Varadkar’s EU policies “defy logic”, while Sinn Fein’s McDonald has accused the Irish PM of being “smarmy”.

Dublin’s proposed solution: Varadkar opposes direct rule. He says the Irish government is fully committed to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement “and its determination to  secure the effective operation of all its institutions”, reports Irish broadcaster RTE. But what is his plan? To “engage” with all parties to “support the urgent formation of a new executive by the mandated political parties” - in other words, to maintain the status quo.

British Prime Minister Theresa May

May is no stranger to tough negotiation. The 61-year-old Oxford-educated PM worked in the City before becoming Maidenhead MP in 1997 - fighting her way to the top in male-dominated environments. May’s promotion to home secretary burnished her credentials as a tough operator. She oversaw falling crime rates and, in 2013, successfully deported radical cleric Abu Qatada.

On the negative side, however, she was slated the following year over the “easily avoided fiasco” at the Passport Office, which led to lengthy delays in renewing travel documents, and over the government’s failure to get net migration below 100,000 a year.

More recently, Brexit has been a difficult distraction, as have numerous terrorist attacks and the Grenfell tower fire. Will Northern Ireland be the straw that breaks the camel’s back? 

Politics.co.uk’s Kevin Meagher says May has already made three critical mistakes: first, she left Northern Ireland to the Northern Ireland Office - even when it was floundering. Second, May didn’t appoint a strong, international figure to chair talks, which would have allowed her to appear impartial. And third, May didn’t preside over a “something for everyone” face-saving deal when she had the chance on her trip to Belfast last week.

The Prime Minister’s proposed solution: May reportedly told McDonald that rather than reconvening talks, she would prefer a period of reflection - but too much reflection means a deal could slip away.

May appears determined to avoid direct rule, which would force the UK parliament to suspend the Northern Ireland Assembly and take over control of policing, prisons, transport, housing and other powers now devolved to Stormont. It would also put the UK in the “politically toxic” position of having to decide whether to legalise same-sex marriage and overturn Northern Ireland’s abortion ban, says The Spectator. With the legislative agenda full of Brexit bills, the logistics might prove insurmountable.

However, the PM could implement a limited form of direct rule that would allow a limited number of financial and budget decisions to be made without suspending the Assembly.

One way or another, the PM must act, says the Financial Times, concluding: “At this stage, some government is better than no government.” 

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