A DUP MP expects 2017’s political vacuum to continue throughout 2018 and has laid responsibility for progress squarely with Sinn Fein and the secretary of state.
The power-sharing Executive collapsed after the resignation of Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, the late deputy first minister, almost a year ago on January 10 last.
The stalemate has caused consternation across many sectors in Northern Ireland over the past year, with critics pointing out how the logjam is playing havoc with the health service, school budgets and departmental spending.
The DUP’s Sammy Wilson last night urged direct rule or a new form of government without Sinn Fein, which in turn called on London and the DUP to accept its terms for returning to government: “genuine and equal partnership”.
Alliance leader Naomi Long called for an independent facilitator to break the logjam, while the UUP and SDLP broadly fell in behind the DUP and Sinn Fein along party lines; the UUP calling for a coalition of parties which wish to govern or direct rule, while the SDLP echoed Sinn Fein’s calls for movement on an Irish language act and same-sex marriage.
Mr Wilson told the News Letter: “I don’t think 2018 will be much different to 2017.
“It is clear Sinn Fein would have problems administering budget reforms at Stormont.
“They are not prepared to do this so they will continue to hide behind the shield of unreasonable demands unless, as was the case with welfare reforms and policing, they change their minds.
“But there is certainly not much prospect of that at the moment.”
Mr Wilson added: “Their continued calls for talks is simply to cover their embarrassment because people can see that no other party is putting down pre-conditions to talks.”
However, there are countless serious ministerial decisions that must be made across Stormont, he said, or the processes of government will be in jeopardy.
An alternative could be some sort of weighted voting system in Stormont to allow MLAs to vote through decisions without Sinn Fein.
“I suspect the Northern Ireland Office will be telling him [James Brokenshire] ‘oh be cautious, do not offend Sinn Fein’. But why continue to give them room to pull down Stormont going forward.”
DUP MP Gregory Campbell said Sinn Fein is refusing to come to the table until they get their own way.
“That’s not how the DUP negotiates,” he said. “Everyone’s mandate must be respected but through the democratic legislature rather than a series of pre-conditions before a government will he formed.
“Whilst direct rule looks inevitable, it will be for London and London alone to govern Northern Ireland. I welcome Her Majesty’s Government’s clarity on this. There will be no role for Dublin.”
UUP justice spokesman Doug Beattie MLA said Secretary of State Mr Brokenshire needs to grab the process “by the scruff of the neck and make clear that no single party will be allowed to hold the country to ransom”.
He added: “It might suit Sinn Fein to see Northern Ireland blow in the wind with no functioning Assembly or Executive but it certainly doesn’t bode well for all the people of Northern Ireland.”
Sinn Fein talk about rights but deny the right of most people to be democratically represented at Stormont, he said.
“If an Assembly and an Executive can’t be formed after these proposed talks then the secretary of state needs to bring in new thinking such as voluntary coalition or be very clear that direct rule can and will happen.”
Sinn Fein told the News Letter that progress was possible early this year “but only if the institutions represent genuine and equal partnership government for all our people”.
“That will require the British government and the DUP accepting the political and democratic reality which has already been made abundantly clear by the electorate.”
A spokesman added: “Sinn Fein want to to develop the widest possible consensus in political, civic and popular opinion to achieve a new Executive, because locally elected ministers are best placed to run local public services and fight back against the threats of Brexit and austerity.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said his party had proposed the reform of Stormont’s petition of concern and that “economic equality, language equality and marriage equality is needed” to move forward.
Alliance leader Naomi Long said a change of attitude is required and that an independent facilitator is needed “to combat tension and mistrust”.