The prospect of a DUP deal with the Conservatives has cast a cloud of uncertainty over the already faltering efforts to restoring powersharing in Northern Ireland.
Q: Where do things stand at the moment?
A: Northern Ireland has been without a powersharing executive since March and without a first and deputy first minister since January. The institutions imploded after the late Martin McGuinness quit as deputy first minister in protest at the DUP’s handling of a botched green energy scheme - the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI). Stormont structures meant Mr McGuinness’s move forcibly removed DUP leader Arlene Foster from her job as first minister and triggered a snap election, which was held in March. The election campaign exposed many more divisions between the two main parties, on issues such legislative protections for Irish language speakers and how to deal with the legacy of the Troubles.
Q: Did the Assembly election change things?
A: Sinn Fein’s decision to force a snap election paid dividends for the republican party. The DUP entered the election as Northern Ireland largest party, with a gap of 10 seats between it and second largest Sinn Fein. After the poll that gap was cut to just one seat. While the election altered the dynamic within the Assembly chamber - which was shorn of its overall unionist majority for the first time - it did little to restore devolution. Post-election negotiations between the five main Stormont parties and the UK and Irish governments faltered from the outset. A number of deadlines to reach an agreement fell by the wayside amid a bitter stalemate between the DUP and Sinn Fein - the two parties whose agreement is essential to form an administration. When Theresa May called the snap General Election the stumbling talks were put on ice and are due to resume on Monday with a new deadline - the fourth - of June 29.
Q: Why would the mooted confidence and supply deal between the DUP and Tories impact things?
A: Devolution in Northern Ireland is based on the template laid out in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The historic accord commits the UK government to demonstrate “rigorous impartiality” when dealing with competing political views in the region. In subsequent agreements, the Government has cast itself as an independent arbitrator in negotiations between the local parties. The Government’s adherence to that position will clearly be brought into question if its very existence in Parliament is dependent on a deal with the DUP. The impartiality of the last Secretary of State James Brokenshire had already been questioned by nationalists during the negotiation process - due to remarks he made about security force members being prosecuted for Troubles offences. Those concerns about partiality have now intensified tenfold.
Q: Is this unprecedented?
A: Not really. The Conservative Party has stated on a number of occasions that it will never be neutral on the Union, so for the Tories to align with a pro-Union party will hardly come as a bolt from the blue for the other parties. Its full name is the Conservative and Unionist Party after all. Also, ahead of the 2010 General Election, the Conservatives struck an electoral pact with the Ulster Unionists in Northern Ireland. David Cameron and William Hague were among senior Tories who travelled across the Irish Sea to promote the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists - New Force (UCUNF). However, the link-up failed at the polls and proved short-lived - so the potential impact on future Stormont dynamics never really became an issue.
Q: Could there be another approach?
A: The Good Friday Agreement was negotiated by US senator George Mitchell. Another US diplomat Richard Haass mediated an ill-fated talks process in 2013. It is possible nationalist concerns about the Government’s position could be assuaged by the appointment of another independent facilitator from outside the UK and Ireland. In the latter stages of the last round of negotiations, Sinn Fein concerns around Mr Brokenshire prompted the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service to chair some talks sessions. But, given the DUP’s new-found influence over the Government, it is unclear whether the party would rubber stamp the appointment of an outside talks chair.
Q: Will the likely confidence and supply deal have any other impact on the talks?
A: In the face of an increased Sinn Fein mandate and with questions about the RHI still hanging over the party, many believed the DUP entered March’s negotiations to form a new executive on the back foot. During the talks the party signalled a potential softening of its opposition to an Irish Language Act and insisted it had no “red lines” preventing it from restoring devolution. The result of the General Election has undoubtedly strengthened the DUP’s hand, with party leader Arlene Foster now looking rock solid only months after facing down intense pressure to quit. With the DUP now essentially holding the fate of the UK government in its hands, will the party be as keen to compromise with Sinn Fein? Some are also asking whether efforts to restore Stormont now will take a back seat for the DUP, given it arguably has bigger fish to fry at Westminster. On the other side of the coin, Sinn Fein, a party that regularly blames budgetary woes at Stormont on “Tory cuts”, is hardly likely to be more inclined to form an administration with a party closely aligned to the Conservatives.
Q: So what will happen next?
A: That’s anyone’s guess. Talks to restore powersharing are still scheduled to resume at Stormont Castle on Monday. The prospects of an imminent breakthrough looked slim prior to the General Election, now the picture appears even more uncertain. The return of Direct Rule from Westminster looms large, as does the prospect of yet another Assembly election. The Government does have one potentially persuasive card still to play. The 90 Assembly members elected in March are still getting paid, despite having no Assembly to attend. If the Government exercised its power to stop those wages would that create an added impetus to get a deal over the line?