Northern Ireland: ‘Moment of truth’ after three years of political paralysis

After three years of political paralysis in Northern Ireland, progress in negotiations gives hope on Friday for an agreement between Unionists and Republicans to govern this British province on the front line of Brexit.
T he British government released a draft agreement Thursday evening. The two main Northern Irish parties, the DUP unionists and the Sinn Fein Republicans, have until Monday to agree. Otherwise London will have to mechanically call local elections, at a sensitive time when the United Kingdom has to leave the European Union in three weeks.

These two parties must share the governance of the British province, under the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, which put an end to the “Troubles” between Republicans (mainly Catholics) and Unionists (especially Protestants), violence which have left nearly 3,500 dead in 30 years.

A political and financial scandal had brought down the previous government coalition in January 2017 and several rounds of negotiations since have failed to lift the blockage. Discussions resumed in mid-December.

The issue is all the more crucial since the local assembly, currently paralyzed, is supposed to have a say in the controversial customs provisions aimed at preventing the return of a physical border with the Republic of Ireland after Brexit.

Patience exhausted

“This is a moment of truth for the Belfast agreement,” Minister of Northern Ireland Julian Smith said in a statement, calling on the parties to come together and form a government “in the interest of ‘North Ireland”.

He wrote to the President of the Stormont Assembly in Belfast to meet on Friday. But an Assembly spokesperson said that this will only be done if the main parties are willing to approve the agreement.

DUP chief Arlene Foster has adopted a favorable stance: “We believe there is a basis on which the Assembly and the executive can be restored in a fair and balanced manner”.

For her part, the chief of Sinn Fein Mary-Lou McDonald assured that her party was examining the text “with attention”.

The draft agreement provides in particular for measures to promote the Irish language or speed up the functioning of justice. The British government has promised investments in public services in the region, the most economically disadvantaged in the United Kingdom, subject to the restoration of local institutions.

Figures won’t be released until agreement reached, Downing street spokesperson says

“There is no need, and public opinion no longer has the patience, to continue the process and the discussions,” warned Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney.

He jointly published with London the draft agreement, thus reflecting the role of “co-guarantor” of the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom in the peace agreements. And he called on the two parties “to collectively commit to ensuring that the policy benefits the people”.

According to Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, “there is a real chance that today, or by Monday, we can have an assembly and a government in good working order again”.

The current showdown intervenes in a political landscape in movement under the effect of Brexit, against which the majority of the British border province of the Republic of Ireland, member of the EU voted.

In the British legislative elections in December, the province elected for the first time in Westminster more Republican deputies (9, including 7 for Sinn Fein and 2 for the Social Democrats of the SDLP), supporters of a reunification with Ireland , than DUP unionists, in favor of remaining in the British Crown.

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