Politics in Northern Ireland is in a crisis. The Executive is crumbling and people aren't talking to each other. So what has happened?
Well the DUP and Sinn Féin distrust each other. And at the same time have had to share power since 2007. And they've been disagreeing about welfare reform for years. The rest of the UK introduced such reform but Sinn Féin blocked this in Northern Ireland. An agreement was reached last December but that feel apart in Spring. So that's the first problem.
Then in May a former senior IRA leader, Jock Davison, was killed. And then in August another former member, Kevin McGuigan, was also killed, possibly in a revenge attack. The Police announced the IRA may have been involved and so may be actually still active. Sinn Féin rejected this. And all politicians in Northern Ireland, the Republic, and UK were worried. The DUP asked how this could be: apparently the IRA was gone but now we're told it might be still around.
As part of the investigation the Police arrested and interviewed senior Sinn Féin members, including its NI Chairman. Gerry Adams said the Police should be allowed do their job - but also said he was concerned about the arrests.
The DUP wanted Stormont suspended but London said no. So the party then tried to suspend things from within the assembly itself. But the UUP, SDLP, and Sinn Féin all went against this. The UUP also withdrew its only Minister from Executive meetings. Then on Thursday the First Minister Peter Robinson and all his DUP colleagues but one (Arlene Foster) stepped aside: they said they couldn't work with Sinn Féin. But the Executive didn't fall. Arlene Foster became acting First Minister. She now currently heads an Executive with vacant cabinet seats and which is otherwise Sinn Féin and SDLP. And she has to fill these vacant seats.
But Arlene Foster has also said that Sinn Féin and the SDLP will damage her Unionist community, and she has to prevent that. So the acting First Minister is effectively saying she is only interested in standing up for one part of Northern Irish society. This is unacceptable for a leader to say.
All of this shows what a mess things are in. And although a lot of it is complicated, there are some simple points to make.
- Trust the police. Sinn Féin say let the Police do their job and also criticise them when they do. This has to end. Sinn Féin will gain more respect if they don't comment on ongoing police investigations.
- Represent everyone. Arlene Foster may be a Unionist, but she is acting First Minister, a role that requires, naturally, promoting unity. Sectionalism should be forgotten about: they are politicians for all people in Northern Ireland, not just for their voters.
- Be pragmatic. Northern Ireland is too dependent on welfare and the public service. Some consolidation is needed. Sinn Féin should not take London money but refuse to accept the conditions.
The upshot is that Dublin, London, and Washington all want things sorted this week, through inter-party talks that start on Monday. Agreememt is possible. And trust, inclusiveness, and pragmatism would help achieve that. This week offers a chance to show proper leadership on all of these fronts.