Did May derail a potential Northern Ireland settlement?

It all seemed so positive last week. Just days ago, it appeared that Northern Ireland would return to normal. Instead, the mess may metastasize to London, and beyond it to Brexit and the future of Theresa May.

The two main parties in Northern Ireland have been at an impasse for more than a year, leaving the UK’s contentious enclave’s government without an executive. Last week, however, momentum appeared to be building for a settlement on language and other issues — so much so that a visit from prime ministers May (UK) and Leo Varadkar (Republic of Ireland) signaled to many that an agreement had already been reached. Instead, it fell apart … and it might be because the May/Varadkar created too much of a last-minute distraction. That was the accusation from Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster and others:

There is “no current prospect” of restoring power-sharing in Northern Ireland, Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster said Wednesday.

The DUP and Sinn Féin have been engaged in start-stop talks to find agreement since the Northern Ireland Executive collapsed over the handling of a green energy scheme in January 2017. Civil servants have largely been making day-to-day decisions on public services during that time. Northern Ireland has a power-sharing government in which Irish nationalists and unionists must work together, a system set up to provide a political settlement after years of conflict.

“At the moment, we do not have a fair and balanced package,” Foster said in a statement. “We cannot and will not be held to ransom by those who have refused to form an executive for over thirteen months.”

Foster put the blame on both Sinn Féin and May and demanded that May’s government reinstitute direct rule:

The move humiliated Mrs May, who made a high profile visit to Belfast on Monday and raised hopes a deal to end the 13-month stalemate was finally close.

In an incendiary statement last night, Mrs Foster called on the Westminster government to intervene to set a budget and start making policy decisions.

And she blasted the PM for making a ‘distracting’ intervention in her visit and effectively called for the return of direct rule from London for the first time in a decade.

We’ll get back to the direct-rule demand later. DUP negotiator Simon Hamilton also blamed May and Varadkar:

He told reporters: “I think the visit of the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach acted as a bit of a distraction at the beginning of the week, I don’t think it was entirely helpful in getting us to reach a successful conclusion but regardless of the intervention, unsuccessful as it was of both prime ministers, significant and serious gaps remain between ourselves and Sinn Fein.”

Asked if the DUP asked Mrs May not to go to Belfast at such a sensitive stage in talks and why she ignored the advice, Mr Hamilton said: “I am sure as all prime ministers get advice from time to time and they can take that advice or they can ignore that advice.

“Certainly in our view it acted as a distraction, we were unable to build on the progress that we had been making at the end of last week, and I think we have, as I have said before, run out of road in respect of this process.”

Sinn Féin fired back by revealing the draft agreement on which the deal was supposed to be based. The biggest issue was the status of the Irish language, a flashpoint for generations in the enclave and for centuries throughout Ireland. DUP accused Sinn Féin of holding out for a “standalone” Irish-only approach. However, new Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said that her party had agreed to conditions set by DUP to also include support for Ulster Scots and to refrain from any compulsory use of Irish in exchange for the language act:

She said it included an Irish Language Act, an Ulster Scots Act and a Respecting Language and Diversity Act. She said that while there was no movement on same-sex marriage, there was a pledge the petition of concern would not be used in any Assembly vote.

She also said that the justice ministry would have become part of the usual d’hondt selection for the parties by 2022. It has been excluded from the usual allocation of ministries with the parties agreeing to an individual outside their groups holding the position. Alliance leader David Ford and independent unionist Claire Sugden have both been ministers since the powers were devolved in 2010.

Dublin TD McDonald said there would be no quotas on Irish speakers for jobs, nor would the language be forced on anyone. She said the current phase of the talks was over.

If that’s a truthful assessment of the preliminary agreements made, it seems like a fair compromise. That’s a big if, of course, but McDonald promised to provide the full transcripts to both London and Dublin:

Mrs McDonald said they would not disclose all the details of the deal to honour any future confidentiality should the talks restart, but they would provide both the British and Irish governments with the full text.

That could make matters contentious between London and Dublin, too. While Foster is demanding a return to direct rule, McDonald wants the Good Friday Agreement powers conference to reconvene to temporarily govern instead. Both solutions would be messy, and May and Varadkar clearly wanted to avoid both in favor of cementing an agreement. Representatives of other smaller parties in Northern Ireland want an end to the two-party negotiations but also have said that they warned May not to come last week, saying that she had been misled by reports of a deal on the brink.

The DUP demand for direct rule might be tough to ignore, and this is why the collapse of talks matters beyond the shores of Ireland. Foster and the DUP provided the seats necessary for Theresa May to form a government after the snap election she called last year blew up in her face. The DUP can force new elections by pulling out of May’s coalition and demanding a no-confidence vote, which may have been part of their hardball calculations with Sinn Féin as well, given their influence in London.

That could create all sorts of havoc for May and the Tories, especially on their Brexit negotiations. The failed electoral strategy already left May in a weaker bargaining position with the EU, but the need to hold new elections might derail those talks, too. That’s a risk for DUP, which supports Brexit and wants it fully implemented in Northern Ireland, but they are more focused on their position at home and the need to maintain control there. May might be left with little choice but to attempt direct rule to keep DUP in the fold. That could create more backlash at home for her and the Conservatives, as well as opposition from Varadkar and potentially the US as well, as part of our participation in the Good Friday Agreement. The EU will be licking its chops to exploit the tension to improve its Brexit negotiating position, too.

At this point, the Tories might start looking at their options as well. May seems to have spent the past year bungling her way from one self-made crisis to another. Until that gets resolved, it now appears that Northern Ireland will be stuck in limbo as well.