Why Northern Ireland Verges on Crisis Once Again: QuickTake Q&A

SDLP Welcomes Extra Money to Invest in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland’s main political parties are nearing a June 29 deadline to restore the region’s devolved parliament and avoid direct rule from London. The power-sharing arrangement between the pro-U.K. Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein, which wants a united Ireland, collapsed in January. The context of the talks changed when the DUP, after winning 10 seats in the June 8 U.K. parliamentary elections, agreed to prop up Theresa May’s Conservative government in London in exchange for extra cash for Northern Ireland. That means there’s more now at stake.

1. What’s at stake?

The negotiations to restore the power-sharing assembly are Northern Ireland’s chance to govern itself. The assembly was one of the key pieces of architecture in the region’s peace process, which ended decades of sectarian conflict. If the key players can’t reach a deal by June 29, London may reimpose direct rule on the region. (May’s government could extend the talks if it feels a solution is in sight.) Adding to the importance of the negotiations is the DUP’s newfound opportunity to play a key role in shaping Brexit, the single biggest issue facing the region’s economy.

2. Who are the main players?

The DUP and Sinn Fein are the two biggest parties in Northern Ireland’s assembly. After the latest election in March, unionist parties had a total of 39 seats, the same as parties in favor of a united Ireland. Arlene Foster leads the DUP, while Michelle O’Neill is the new leader of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland. The remaining lawmakers are made up of centrist parties and independents.

3. How does the DUP’s higher profile affect negotiations?

The DUP agreed to support May’s minority government in key votes in the U.K. Parliament in return for extra funding for Northern Ireland. While that shores up May’s government in London, it has led to accusations from Sinn Fein that the DUP cannot play an impartial role in Northern Ireland. That’s important because the peace agreement that ended years of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland requires the British and Irish governments to be “impartial facilitators” in the region. Also, Sinn Fein may have an incentive to return to government, at least in the medium term, to win some of the credit for spending the extra money on roads, hospitals and in the wider economy.

4. Where do the parties stand on Brexit?

The DUP supported leaving the EU, while Sinn Fein backed staying. In the June 2016 referendum, about 56 percent of Northern Ireland voters backed "remain." Sinn Fein is leading calls for the region to be given a special status within the EU after Brexit, but there seems little real prospect of that. DUP leader Foster says she wants a “sensible” Brexit but has given little detail about what that might entail.

5. What does this mean for the border?

The Brexit vote raised the possibility of a return to the so-called hard border between Northern Ireland, which is to leave the EU, and the Republic of Ireland, which is staying. For now, goods and services flow seamlessly across the border every day. If that becomes a hard border, customs checks would almost certainly have to be introduced, and barring a new trade deal, U.K. exports could run into the union’s common external tariff. Ireland was split in the 1920s as part of the deal that gave most of the island independence from Britain, creating the 310-mile (500 kilometer) border. Some observers are concerned that the sight of checkpoints along the border could re-ignite conflict in the region.

6. Why did the assembly collapse in the first place?

Then-Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein resigned in January after Foster, his DUP counterpart, refused to step aside pending an investigation of how the cost of a subsidized energy program spiraled out of control. The first minister and deputy first minister effectively jointly lead the region’s assembly, and neither position can exist without the other. Since elections in March, the two main parties have been negotiating terms to re-enter government. McGuinness died in March, and was replaced by O’Neill. Given Foster is now a key figure on the national U.K. political stage, there seems little chance she will cave in to Sinn Fein’s demands.

7. What happens if there is no deal?

If no agreement is reached, the U.K. government may impose direct rule on Northern Ireland. This has happened four times since the the power-sharing assembly was created. The last period of direct rule ended in 2007 after five years. James Brokenshire, the U.K. government minister in charge of Northern Ireland, could extend the deadline if the two sides are close to an agreement.

8. Will an agreement be the end of the current dispute?

It will get the assembly back in place, but if the two parties do agree to share power again, it is likely to be tense at best. There is still a degree of enmity on both sides since the last parliament fell apart in January.

The Reference Shelf

  • A visit to the front line of Brexit.
  • A Quicktake explainer on the U.K.’s potential future relationship with the EU.
  • Sinn Fein is lobbying for Northern Ireland special status.
  • Cash for Ash -- why the last power-sharing parliament collapsed.
  • The Centre for Cross Border Studies assesses the issues at stake around the border after Brexit.
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