Northern Ireland: powersharing dispute threatens to freeze peace process
Northern Ireland's pro-British DUP and Irish republican Sinn Féin failed Friday to agree on bringing policing and justice under local control. If a stalemate continues, it could result in the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Light flurries of snowfall at the historic Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland may have seemed like an omen today as uneasy partners in powersharing failed to achieve a breakthrough on local policing, potentially freezing the peace process once again.Skip to next paragraph
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Today was the deadline for the two governing parties, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), representing pro-British sentiment, and Irish republican Sinn Féin to agree on bringing policing and justice under local control. Presently, these powers are administered by the British government in London. Sinn Féin wants to see local control but the DUP has been reluctant to agree, fearing a backlash from unionist voters for whom Sinn Féin influence over policing is unacceptable.
The breaking point is the issue of marches by the Orange Order, a pro-British fraternal organization for Protestants. The DUP's demand that the contentious parades be allowed as a precondition is unacceptable, Sinn Féin says.
If Sinn Féin and the DUP fail to agree, the likely result will be the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly followed by an immediate election, which many feel would make Irish republicans the largest group in the Northern Ireland polity for the first time since the state was founded in 1921.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his Irish counterpart Brian Cowen both arrived in Northern Ireland Monday to help facilitate a deal, only to leave empty-handed two days later. The US envoy to Northern Ireland had warned of serious economic consequences if the parties fail to reach agreement and the British and Irish governments are threatening to impose a mandatory deal from above. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been involved in diplomatic efforts by telephone.
On the one hand, the guns have fallen silent and the city of Belfast enjoyed an economic boom for a decade. One sign of success is that former US envoy George Mitchell, who played a major role in ironing out the details of the Irish peace, is now in the Middle East attempting to export his brand of political agreement.
On the other hand, the political machinations, always byzantine to outsiders, have failed to produce a stable government, and several studies indicate that sectarian attitudes have hardened since the peace was sealed by 1998's Good Friday Accord.
Too big to fail?
The fact that the Northern Ireland Assembly is seen, like banks during the financial crisis, as "too big to fail" leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of many.
Kevin Bean, a professor at the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool, says the public has tired of the "choreographed" nature of Northern Ireland's cyclical crises.
"This crisis is entirely predictable and the two main parties will eventually have to cut a deal. It's almost as if a game is going on in politics while real life goes on elsewhere," he says.
"It appears to the public as choreography: everyone has their roles to play, right down to the prime ministers rushing in and holding meetings that go on into the early hours, the phalanx of cameramen and photographers and the press saying 'It's the final crisis – if this fails there will be Armageddon.'"