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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Theresa May faces crisis as Northern Ireland talks collapse

The DUP pulled out of talks to return to a power-sharing government with Sinn Fein to Northern Ireland

DUP leader Arlene Foster announced the collapse of talks at news conference in Parliament Buildings at Stormont in Belfast, Northern Ireland
DUP leader Arlene Foster announced the collapse of talks at news conference in Parliament Buildings at Stormont in Belfast, Northern Ireland

Theresa May is facing yet another crisis after talks to restore Northern Ireland’s devolved government collapsed on Wednesday.

The collapse makes Mrs May’s already weak position more fragile as Brexit negotiation begin to touch on the issue of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

The prime minister's official spokesman said on Thursday evening that Mrs May “was clear that she still believes the basis for an agreement exists and recognised the leadership both parties had shown over past weeks and months. She urged them both to reflect on the recent phase of talks in order to find the best way forward.”

The devolved government in Northern Ireland collapsed 13 months ago, and it appeared that an agreement was nearing this week when Irish PM Leo Varadkar and Mrs May travelled to Belfast on Monday. Westminster had hoped for a deal to be reached before the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement’s signing in April.

Mrs May’s minority government is reliant upon the Democratic Unionist Party's (DUP) 10 MPs in Westminster, after the two struck a supply and confidence deal in exchange for an extra £1 billion in funding for the region.

Now direct rule looks more likely than ever, after power-sharing talks between the DUP and Sinn Fein collapsed. Former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers said that increased Westminster involvement in the region’s politics was inevitable, whilst DUP leader Arlene Foster went as far as calling for direct rule.

In a statement yesterday, she said “It is now incumbent upon Her Majesty’s Government to set a budget and start making policy decisions about our schools, hospitals and infrastructure. Important decisions impacting on everyone in Northern Ireland have been sitting in limbo for too long.”

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Sinn Fein’s leader in Stormont, Michelle O’Neil, blamed the DUP for the talks breaking down on Wednesday evening. "Sinn Fein over the past 13 months worked to restore the institutions on the basis of respect, integrity and equality for all sections of society.

“There is no current prospect of these discussions leading to an Executive being formed.

“Sinn Fein engaged, we worked in good faith, we stretched ourselves.

"We had reached an accommodation with the leadership of the DUP.

"The DUP failed to close the deal."

She added that controversial issues surrounding the Irish language and same-sex marriage are “not going away”.

At the heart of the breakdown are disagreements over an Irish Language Act, an issue both sides’ bases are deeply entrenched over. Proponents of such legislation point to the protection of the Welsh language in UK law, but unionist opponents claim speakers of the language are already protected.

A recent poll of DUP voters showed that more than 68% of voters were “totally against an Irish Language Act”.

But Sinn Fein are equally as beholden over the language issue, and have refused to re-enter a power-sharing government without legislation that protects Irish speakers.

Whilst direct rule from Westminster might play well with the DUP’s base in the short term, it could potentially be painful for Northern Ireland in general, and even damaging to the party in the long run.

Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Owen Smith suggested London should use direct rule to “take forward issues such as equal marriage”. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK in which same-sex marriage is not legally recognised, this being another issue the puritanical Presbyterian DUP base are staunchly against.

Westminster may also use the opportunity to make tough decisions regarding Northern Ireland’s budget. In late 2015 a review into healthcare in the region suggested closing more than half of Northern Ireland’s 10 hospitals. The region, which has a population of 1.8 million people, would be better served by just four hospitals, the report recommended. Some believe that return to direct rule might see the implementation of some of the report’s findings.