The DUP have come under pressure to relinquish their veto over political change at Stormont following round-table talks over the future of the Belfast Assembly this week. Both the London and Dublin governments accused the party of blocking a pre-Christmas deal on restoring the North’s suspended political institutions.
The Assembly collapsed almost three years ago amid mounting corruption allegations following a decade of almost complete political deadlock. The DUP is refusing to agree to a meaningful reform of the operation of the Six County’s powersharing administration.
Other issues which were the subject of discussions include legislation to protect the rights of Irish language speakers, justice for victims of state killings and extra money for the north’s failing health system.
There were unconfirmed reports that the DUP had unilaterally broken off negotiations for the Christmas holidays. Britain’s Direct Ruler in Ireland, Julian Smith has previously threatened to end salary payments to Assembly members and call fresh elections next month if Stormont is not restored.
Since the DUP lost their confidence and supply deal with the British government following the Westminster general election, they have shown a desire to revive the ‘petition of concern’ mechanism at Stormont. Originally designed to require cross-community support for divisive motions before the Assembly, the device was extended by the 2006 St Andrew’s Agreement to allow unionists exercise control over any Ministerial decision.
DUP leader Arlene Foster had said she wants to restore devolution so that “never again can one party hold the rest of Northern Ireland to ransom”
In response to the apparent end of talks, Smith said: “I am deeply disappointed that we have not got all five parties in agreement. I just hope there is time to reflect on that decision.
“I know there are people in the DUP who want to move forward, I would urge them to move forward so that we can get this done. We are very close to being able to table a text of agreement and compromise.”
He said the Assembly could have been restored by Monday with DUP support.
“There are a number of outstanding issues but they are extremely limited. But unfortunately we do not have all parties on board, so the judgement I have made is that we should not table the text.
“We will allow all parties to reflect on the impact of that decision on people in Northern Ireland who are deeply affected by the lack of decision making at Stormont.”
A DUP spokesman later criticised the two governments for a “crude attempt to bounce people”. DUP negotiator Edwin Poots added: “there has been some effort by others to box us into a corner... the DUP will not be moving forward unless we get a fair and balanced deal.”
He said he would not be “cherry picking” previous political agreements. “We are going to get the right, fair and balanced deal for all of the community and, in particular, the community that we represent we are not going to abandon at the behest of any government or any other political party in Northern Ireland,” he said.
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said there should be no “red lines” in the negotiations. “It’s not helpful in the course of discussions for people to be setting out red lines or talking about red lines,” she said.
After years of events in the north of Ireland becoming dominated by the politics of Westminster, Sinn Fein is also believed to be keen to restore Stormont. The party is under internal pressure to demonstrate delivery on local issues while it continues to abstain from Westminster, where it refuses to swear an oath of allegiance to the British royal family.
This month’s Westminster general election saw the party lose vote share, which some commentators have linked to Sinn Fein’s absence from debates and votes in London.
The absence of Stormont has also been widely blamed in the media for failures in public services in the Six Counties, particularly the health services, although the British government has seemed to refuse to intervene in an effort to put pressure on the two main parties.
On Wednesday more than 20,000 nurses and health workers went on strike across the Six Counties as part of a dispute over pay and staffing levels, leading to the cancellation of more than 4,700 appointments.
Sinn Fein accused the British Direct Ruler of walking out of a ‘health summit’ held as part of the talks this week. Smith appeared to wash his hands of the nurses strike, saying only that he ‘did not believe’ he had the power to intervene.
“A solution is available which would end the dispute, but the British Secretary of State is holding back on this in a cynical attempt to pressurise the political parties,” said Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O’Neill.
“The attempt to exploit the suffering of patients as political leverage in the talks is disgraceful.”
Some health workers staged a protest at Stormont House as the talks were taking place inside. Irish language activists also staged a protest, with scores of children from Irish language schools wearing Santa hats as they marched to the front of Parliament Buildings calling for legislation.
The 26 County Tánaiste Simon Coveney, who is also the Minister for Foreign Affairs in the South, said he was “on the exact same page” as Mr Smith.
He said: “There is a deal to be done, Northern Ireland can move forward, Stormont can turn the lights back on and start making decisions for Northern Ireland again.
“We are going to continue to work together. The British and Irish governments are really in lockstep here.”
Sinn Féin’s senior negotiator, Conor Murphy, said his party was deeply disappointed a deal has not been done, and didn’t understand why the DUP were telling the media that the talks had to be closed down for Christmas.
“We have applied ourselves in the talks process over the last couple of days with both governments and the other parties,” he said.
“The onus is now on the DUP, once again, to tell the public why they are now holding up the restoration of the assembly.”