DUP flex their muscles at Westminster as Brexit looms

DUP flex their muscles at Westminster as Brexit looms

The breakdown in talks in Northern Ireland have much to do with politics and power in London

MADRID: Located on the outskirts of south Belfast, Stormont is an imposing building that has served as Northern Ireland’s seat of government since 1921. Now, any chance that the elected assembly will reconvene there in the near future has been dashed by the announcement that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) wants the United Kingdom’s government in Westminster to directly rule the province.

For more than 400 days, the DUP — the main political party representing the small majority who want to maintain links with the UK — and Sinn Fein — the main political party represent a large minority who want unity with the Republic of Ireland to the south — have been deadlocked over forming a power-sharing government.

That power-sharing deal was part of the Good Friday Agreement signed in 1998 that formally ended more than three decades of political and sectarian violence that claimed more than 3,600 lives and injured another 36,000.

In January 2017, Martin McGuinness the Deputy First Minister, resigned from the power-sharing government, precipitating its collapse. At the centre of the dispute then was the DUP’s handling of a renewable energy scheme — overseen by party leader Arlene Foster. Its abuses and lack of oversight meant the scheme left Northern Ireland taxpayers on the hook for £500 million (Dh2.2 billion), with Foster’s reputation in tatters.

New assembly elections in March — held just before McGuinness’ death — left Sinn Fein just one assembly seat short of the DUP and with only 12,000 votes behind in total polling across the province of 1.6 million.

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Sinn Fein, a party with socialist policies, are determined that the province’s conservative policies on gay rights will be updated. But they also want to introduce a Gaelic language act — one that would put the language spoken by less than 3 per cent of people in the province on a daily basis on the same legal footing as English. For the nationalists, it’s an important issue, one that would send a clear message that the province is clearly changing forever.

For unionists, any recognition of Gaelic as an equal language would be unacceptable, given that it was the language in which the former Irish Republican Army gave its formal orders. Giving way on Gaelic would be more than a tacit admission that the IRA’s slogan ‘Tiochfidh ar la’ (Our day will come) would indeed be true.

Complicating matters in the talks are the transfer of power from a generation of Sinn Fein leaders — both recently retired party president Gerry Adams and the late McGuinness were IRA field commanders during the violence and responsible for ordering terrorist attacks — to urbane women with no history nor bloodshed on their hands.

And compounding matters more, following the United Kingdom general election last June, where Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives were left short of an overall majority, she is now relying on a confidence and supply agreement with the DUP’s 10 MPs at Westminster.

Against this backdrop of 400 days of stalled talks over sharing power, Foster is determined that there will be no concessions now. After all, in less than another 400 days, the UK will be out of the European Union, and Northern Ireland’s border with the Republic will be critical.