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.
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.'"
The latest set of problems follows in the wake of unrelated scandals that themselves threatened to undermine the peace process.
First, Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Féin, was lambasted for not doing enough to protect children when he was informed of allegations of child abuse and rape against his brother Liam. Weeks later, unionism seemed ready to tear itself apart when it was revealed that Iris Robinson, an assembly member and member of the British parliament as well as wife of Northern Ireland's first minister, Peter Robinson, had an extramarital affair with a young man in his late teens and secured state funding for his business venture.
Peter Robinson managed to defuse the situation by temporarily standing down from the office of first minister while Iris Robinson announced her resignation from all elected offices. Mr. Adams, meanwhile, is also weathering the storm, though his strategy has been to hunker down and wait.
Both scandals had the potential to derail the powersharing assembly, and form the backdrop to a real political dispute that could now do just that.
Dawn Purvis, an assembly member for the Progressive Unionist Party, a small group that grew out of the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force, one of the paramilitary protagonists in the Northern Ireland conflict, says the larger parties are feeding sectarianism.
"This is conflict transformation so it's not a normal politics. That sours relationships and blocks the process – we have to end sectarianism, otherwise the faultine will always be there," she told The Christian Science Monitor this morning.
Ms Purvis says the parties must get an agreement so that normal politics can take root in the divided society.
"These continuous rounds of negotiations feed the extremists on both sides, they make them relevant when they're not – they should be irrelevant to the new society we hope to build."
Caragh O'Donnell, who works in arts administration in Belfast, says the endless talks are a distraction from important real economic issues.
"Far too much time money and energy is being wasted on a political process that’s increasingly an embarrassment to us all. It’s exasperating that our MLAs [members of the legislative assembly] can’t even have talks without the intervention of real politicians, while pressing issues like jobs are put aside.
"If they can’t 'play nice,' then they deserve to have government shut down and they should get their pay docked for not doing their jobs while they’re at it," she says.
The Northern Ireland Assembly is no stranger to crises. Since its official inauguration on 2 December 1999 there have been four suspensions, the longest lasting from October 2002 until May 2007. It also follows two other failed attempts at powersharing, first in 1973 and then in 1982.
Public trust low
This time, things may be more serious, as fewer and fewer people on the streets of Northern Ireland trust the Assembly.
The British and Irish governments have yet to reveal the details of their plan to impose a settlement on the disagreeing parties. One possibility open to them is joint authority. This is considered the 'nuclear option' and would see the assembly scrapped and Northern Ireland's sovereignty – and governance – shared by London and Dublin.
By mid-evening local time, the governments had still failed to outline their plan which was due to be published this afternoon.
Political commentator Mick Fealty, who edits the award-winning political blog Slugger O'Toole, says the most likely plan is simply to force policing and justice on the Assembly, but with concessions to both sides.
"The two governments are saying it's 80 percent there," he said. "The main thing we know [about the governments' plan] is that it includes a [mandatory] timeframe for the devolution of policing and justice," he says.