Stormont is facing numerous serious threats to its very existence, a fact now acknowledged by virtually everyone in politics, including the DUP, Sinn Fein and the Government.
Details of the all-party talks announced yesterday by the Secretary of State are still sketchy, but the fact that she has intervened in this way indicates the gravity of the situation, particularly in light of the financially incoherent nationalist refusal to accept welfare reforms.
David Cameron’s administration has deliberately attempted to step back from having a direct role in most aspects of political life in Northern Ireland and has allowed Stormont the space to develop its own policies. For that reason, this Government will have been particularly reluctant to convene talks about issues which are the responsibility of MLAs. However, Parliament retains ultimate responsibility for governing the Province and if Stormont proves incapable of fulfilling its responsibilities, then there is little choice for Westminster but to get more involved.
Any role for the Irish Government in such a process will be watched keenly by unionists and if the talks extend into issues such as welfare reform or parading, which are entirely internal to Northern Ireland, Dublin should not have a say. Under the Belfast Agreement, so-called ‘Strand 1’ issues which relate solely to the internal affairs of Northern Ireland are not a matter for the Republic. Many unionists were concerned to see this key part of the agreement cast aside at the time of the Hillsborough negotiations of 2010 which led to the devolution of policing and justice.
There are issues in which the Republic needs to be involved, such as dealing with the legacy of the Troubles, where Dublin’s past actions are increasingly under scrutiny. However, any attempt by nationalists, civil servants or others to expand the Irish role in these talks into the internal affairs of Northern Ireland must be resisted by unionist representatives.