An attempt to inject urgency into the Stormont talks process this week failed to resolve a stand-off over the Democratic Unionist Party’s refusal to implement past agreements on equality and respect for nationalists, leading to speculation that the process has reached an endpoint.
In the past year, Sinn Fein has taken a much more critical approach to the Stormont Assembly in Belfast following a 500 million pound corruption scandal involving DUP leader Arlene Foster.
Nationalists fear that without a resolution, and coupled with the new Tory pact with the DUP at Westminster and Brexit, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement is being quietly shelved.
To the frustration of the media which had gathered at Stormont since Monday to report developments as another deadline passed, there were few new specifics on the crisis.
Instead, the British Direct Ruler James Brokenshire announced a plan to advance a budget for the north of Ireland at the Westminster parliament this month. The SDLP said the move amounted to the introduction of ‘de facto’ full direct rule from London, while Sinn Fein declared that the “current phase” of talks is at an end.
Speaking to the cameras, a poker-faced Brokenshire said the passing of the latest deadline should not be seen as a reason to abandon the negotiations.
“Let me be clear, this is not a barrier to continued political negotiations and the government will continue to work with the parties with that intent,” he said.
“And indeed, however unlikely, should an Executive be formed speedily enough and a means could be created to provide an exceptional procedure to enable the budget to be passed by the end of November, I would be prepared to withdraw the Budget Bill in order for Assembly to legislate for itself.”
Speaking later to reporters, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said the talks had been a “failure” but he did not rule out continuing engagement with the DUP.
“There has been progress made but we have failed to put together the institutions and we are identifying that failure very, very clearly as being the responsibility on the one hand of the DUP and the British government. That is where the failure lies,” he said.
He warned of full direct rule being a major breach of the Good Friday Agreement with international implications. Asked would the talks continue, an exasperated Mr Adams replied, “Will they? Who knows? Who can tell?”
The 26 County Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the British Prime Minister Theresa May have continued to claim that a deal in the political talks is close. Progress could yet be made later this month, when Westminster is set to consider a direct rule budget, or following the annual conferences by Sinn Fein and the DUP, until which both parties are expected to adopt hardline stances.
Responding to the reports of progress, Sinn Fein Conor Murphy said: “Unless there’s a step change on the part of the DUP and both governments on the issues of rights, it is very unlikely we are going to see any agreement in the next period of time to see the institutions back in place.
“The current phase of talks failed because of the DUP’s refusal to accept a future based on rights and equality. This anti-rights position has been facilitated by a British government which is dependent on the DUP for its own survival.
“However, these issues of rights and equality aren’t going away and they need to be dealt with satisfactorily if credible, sustainable institutions are to be put in place.”
The power-sharing Stormont assembly has been vacant since January after a bitter row between Sinn Fein and the DUP over the “cash-for-ash” scandal, although assembly members continue to be paid.
In the months since, a deep division has been exposed between the parties on issues of equality, the Irish language in particular, as the DUP continued to reject moves to give the language official status in the North. An implacable refusal by DUP hardliners to tolerate the public use of Gaelic, arguably undermining their notion of Protestant supremacy, is said to be at the heart of the impasse.
Other demands which the DUP have rejected include gay rights and the right of families of victims of state violence to hold proper inquests into their loved ones’ deaths.
Despite this, a statement by the Department of the Taoiseach subsequent to the end of the talks on Wednesday insisted that the two sides are close to making a deal. It said the Taoiseach had made the point to British Prime Minister Theresa May that there could be no return to direct rule as it existed prior to the Good Friday Agreement, and that the various provisions of the agreement would have to be honoured.
“The Prime Minister made clear that she did not want to see a return to direct rule and that moves to implement a Budget for Northern Ireland were not the first step on the road to direct rule,” he said.
Mr Varadkar insisted any new direct rule system must be different from the past and honour all parts of the Good Friday agreement.
“It’s the position of the Irish Government that we can’t support the restoration of direct rule in the form that existed before the Good Friday Agreement.”
The 26 County Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said the relationship between the parties was the problem.
“The issues under discussion - particularly those on language and culture - go to the heart of the divisions in society here in Northern Ireland and so agreement on them was always going to be very challenging,” he said.
“However, I have always believed that it is possible to reach an honourable compromise which reflects the core principles of the agreement - partnership, equality and mutual respect.”
Sinn Fein’s leader in the North, Michelle O’Neill, said the failure to reach a deal was “in part because of Mr Brokenshire’s tolerance of the DUP’s blocking of the equality agenda”.
“The only reason they are denied is because of DUP resistance to the rights agenda and the British government’s acquiescence in this. That has been compounded by the Tory-DUP pact,” she said.
“The British Secretary of State is wrong when he says that it is only the parties themselves who can reach agreement, he and the Irish government also have obligations.”