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Politics Amp Policy
Deadline pushed in Northern Ireland talks
From the Financial Times of Tue, 23 Dec 2014 13:22:27 GMT
Members of the Orange Order are flanked by riot police as they march past the nationalist ardoyne area of the Crumlin Road in Belfast...Members of the Orange Order are flanked by riot police as they march past the nationalist ardoyne area of the Crumlin Road in Belfast July 12, 2013. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton (NORTHERN IRELAND - Tags: ANNIVERSARY POLITICS SOCIETY) - RTX11KSB©Reuters

Orange Order members marching down Crumlin Road - a dividing line between unionist and republican communities in north Belfast - in July last year

The future of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government was at stake on Tuesday as the province’s political leaders pursued an elusive agreement to address the legacy of three decades of violence ahead of a Christmas deadline.

If the five parties that make up the devolved executive in Belfast fail to reach a comprehensive agreement on their differences, the UK government could reimpose direct rule from London, potentially putting the gains of Northern Ireland’s celebrated peace process in jeopardy.

The talks remain deadlocked on three issues that touch a political nerve on both sides of the communal and sectarian divide in the province. These include the flying of flags, the routes that loyalist parades may take through republican areas of Belfast, and the wider legacy of the violence that rocked Northern Ireland until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

It was also unclear if the parties had reached a final agreement on welfare and economic reforms despite a pledge by the UK government of a financial package reportedly worth £1.5bn that would soften the blow of looming public spending cuts. The UK government has said the money would be forthcoming only in the event of a comprehensive agreement.

The talks, which continued throughout Monday night without a break, are being chaired by Theresa Villiers, the UK Northern Ireland secretary, and Charlie Flanagan, the Irish foreign minister. They are brokering the negotiations involving the Democratic Unionist, Ulster Unionist, Sinn Féin, centrist SDLP and Alliance parties.

The devolved executive has been operating in its current form since 2007, but it has become increasingly deadlocked over political and economic policy issues in the past few months. Disagreements between the DUP and Sinn Féin, which represent, respectively, the more hardline unionist and nationalist positions, have been the main source of instability. But the smaller parties have also become alienated by the dominance of the other two.

The executive was suspended most notably between 2002 and 2007, when the Ulster Unionists refused to share power with Sinn Féin and the UK government reimposed direct rule through the Northern Ireland Office. Political observers say if the drastic step of suspension is taken, it would be likely to last until the UK general election next May.

The five parties are under increasing pressure to bring the talks to a successful conclusion before Christmas. Yet the risk of failure remains high. A year ago, also just before Christmas, a comprehensive agreement resolving many of Northern Ireland’s legacy issues, drawn up by Richard Haass, the US diplomat, and heavily backed by the White House as well as the governments in Dublin and London, was rejected by the parties at the last minute.

Ms Villiers warned on Monday that a repeat was not acceptable. “We can’t go on with this process indefinitely,” she said. “Right from the start all the parties said Christmas was the deadline.”

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