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No going back?


Next week marks one year since Martin McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister, bringing down Stormont. Since then Northern Ireland has had two polarising elections and a series of protracted yet futile talks. Political Editor Suzanne Breen speaks to MLAs from the five main parties about what they think will happen next ... and the feedback they have been getting from their constituents.

It's almost a year since Simon Hamilton saw Martin McGuinness in Stormont Castle as the Sinn Fein deputy First Minister arrived to hand his resignation letter to Arlene Foster.

"I was shocked at his appearance," says Hamilton. "It had been only a few weeks since I'd last seen him, but, physically, he was a different man."

Two months later, McGuinness died from the rare genetic disease, amyloidosis, and nationalism lost one of its most iconic and important figures in a generation.

By stepping down from office on January 10 last year, the former IRA commander collapsed the very Stormont institutions he had spent the previous decade building and defending.

As the first anniversary of his resignation approaches, there is no sign of a deal to restore power-sharing. "I never suspected then that Northern Ireland would inhabit political limbo for so long," says Hamilton. "I believed we'd either reach a deal to get devolution back up and running, or direct rule would be introduced.

"The public are desperately frustrated about the situation, particularly with the crisis in our health service. With the Assembly not sitting, MLAs spend far more time in their constituencies now. People aren't backward about venting their feelings to us in very colourful language."

Hamilton, who was a DUP senior negotiator in last year's talks, says that, while he would approach a fresh round of discussions "positively", he is "not optimistic" about a breakthrough. An Irish Language Act remains the major stumbling-block.

"Contrary to some media reports, we were never hours or days away from a deal last year, but there was a good understanding between ourselves and Sinn Fein on a range of issues," he says.

"The detail wasn't hammered out, but I could see how an agreement would take shape. It's still possible, but Sinn Fein can't keep approaching the talks wanting a 10-nil victory."

The former DUP Economy Minister takes heart from the "disciplined and confidential nature" of the talks, with no major leaks to the Press by republicans. "That reinforces my belief that progress is possible," he says.

Hopes of a deal were high after McGuinness's funeral in March, he reveals. "There was the handshake in the church between Michelle (O'Neill) and Arlene (Foster) and I sensed a mood developing in which we could do business.

"It wasn't easy for Arlene to be there, given her personal experience of IRA violence and, as an Orange Order member, it wasn't easy for me, either."

Hamilton claims the former deputy First Minister's death has left "a leadership gap" in Sinn Fein. "I don't forget who Martin McGuinness was and the recent state papers have reminded us of his past," he says. "But there was a respect for him, a feeling in the DUP that we could do business with him. A guarded trust developed.

"Michelle O'Neill had big shoes to fill. She took on a huge responsibility with no experience at that level.

"My party has had to build a relationship with Michelle and, at times, it has been a bit fraught. But she is a future deputy First Minister and it's crucial we have good relations with her."

Several times during the last round of talks, the DUP felt headway was being made on key issues and then Sinn Fein "baulked", Hamilton says.

"Hands and voices in the republican movement that are neither publicly seen nor heard appear to be exerting significant influence," he claims. "Things we thought were agreed at the talks table were referred elsewhere and then they were not as agreed as we had thought." Gerry Adams steps down as Sinn Fein president next month, so will his retirement make a deal more or less likely?

"He will surely have to give his successor the space to do the job as they see best," says Hamilton. "But to us, Adams is still the boss - no matter what the arrangements are for whoever becomes titular leader.

"Mary Lou McDonald has been at a few talks' meetings, but she hasn't been really involved in the process. She has no experience up here. I don't expect Adams to disappear from the stage."

Hamilton insists that, if a deal isn't reached by the end of this month, London must appoint direct rule ministers.

"Such a move would make an agreement between ourselves and Sinn Fein less likely in the short term. But I wouldn't say it means devolution is dead for a generation," he adds.

SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon says the current political stalemate causes two different responses in her North Belfast nationalist constituency.

"People directly feeling the pain of the lack of an executive are very angry," she says. "That fury is greatest among those waiting for surgery, or for special needs' school places for their children.

"Many other constituents are just weary and cold-shouldering Stormont. The Executive brought little tangible benefit to those people's lives and they're now saying politics here will never work. But if devolution in Northern Ireland followed the example of Scotland and delivered for citizens, then attitudes would change."

Mallon says claims by the DUP and Sinn Fein that they're committed to reaching a deal are contradicted by the fact they haven't met in months.

"They need to stop the narrow focus of just serving their base and start working for the collective good and the person lying on a hospital trolley in A&E," she says.

The two big parties should also put the detail of their negotiating positions into the public domain. "The secrecy of the process means they can blame each other for the failure to reach a deal. Publish everything and let us all judge who has stretched themselves and who has been intransigent," she adds.

Ulster Unionist MLA Steve Aiken gave up his job as chief executive of Dublin City University Educational Trust to enter politics. "Mike Nesbitt told me Northern Ireland politics was moving in a new direction and I wanted to play my part," he says.

Elected to the Assembly in 2016, he now castigates the "startling lack of vision and capability" he sees. "We've had amateur hour in politics here for a year now," he says.

"Arlene Foster squandered a tremendous opportunity to transform Northern Ireland when she became DUP leader. She has shown none of Peter Robinson's tactical nous. RHI highlights DUP incompetence. Michelle O'Neill is out of her depth and hasn't been given the opportunity to lead, anyway. The grey beard is always there looking over her shoulder. Gerry Adams will never loosen the reins.

"His aim is a border boll in 2022. He doesn't care less whether or not there's an administration in Northern Ireland."

The unionist mood in his South Antrim constituency is hardening, the UUP MLA says. "In the autumn, it was 'a plague on all your houses', with people complaining about MLAs still being paid. Now, anger is directed solely at Sinn Fein.

"People believe the party is holding Northern Ireland to ransom and never wanted Stormont to work. Opposition to an Irish Language Act has grown. The attitude now is 'give them nothing'."

In East Londonderry, Sinn Fein MLA Caoimhe Archibald says the nationalist electorate is fully behind her party's position.

"I have had nothing but support from constituents regarding our stance in support of rights and agreements. This has clearly been borne out by election results," she explains.

Archibald says she is deeply frustrated that agreements have not been fully implemented 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement.

"I'm frustrated that rights available everywhere else on these islands are being denied to citizens by the DUP. And I'm frustrated that Tory cuts and a Tory Brexit are being forced on people who live here, against their wishes."

Does she realistically expect an executive to be established soon? "That will depend on whether the DUP is prepared to end its blockade on the rights of citizens.

"Would an executive that discriminated against some citizens be of any value? Would an executive that hasn't dealt with the issues of alleged corruption and disrespect that caused the collapse be of any value?

"We have an opportunity to reboot the institutions and return them to their original basis of parity of esteem and mutual respect. I am confident that can be done if both governments and all parties honour their responsibilities to the agreements endorsed by the people."

When asked if a new Sinn Fein president will affect the chances of a deal, Archibald says her party has "a collective leadership".

There are reports of some MLAs preparing for the likely suspension of devolution by seeking new employment. Archibald, who has a PhD in molecular micrology and a postgraduate diploma in management and corporate governance, isn't one of them.

"I'm not looking for another job, because, whether or not there is an Assembly in place, I am determined to continue working to deliver on the promise of the institutions," she maintains.

Like the UUP's Steve Aiken, Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong gave up a good job to enter politics in 2016. "I was Northern Ireland director of the Community Transport Association, working with 3,500 volunteers organising transport for older people and those with disabilities. I loved it," she says.

"Through no fault of my own, I've sat in the Assembly for only five months since elected. I'm genuinely surprised power-sharing has been suspended so long.

"In my limited time in Stormont, I always found that the hearts of MLAs across the political spectrum were in the right place and they wanted what was best for everybody here."

Armstrong believes another Assembly poll would only exacerbate divisions. "Successive elections have been disastrous for Northern Ireland, with politicians gutting each other," she says.

"Another one would cost £5m and people would largely vote as they did before, leaving the same players at the table. That money could build a primary school, or run a hospital ward for a year instead. Imagine what it could do for cancer services."

If there is no deal, Armstrong doesn't see any form of productive direct rule. "Theresa May's Government is distracted by Brexit and securing its own survival. It doesn't give two hoots about here. It will allow Northern Ireland to drift," she predicts.

Despite the political stalemate, the Alliance MLA wouldn't be tempted to walk away from politics. "Unless Westminster totally pulls the plug on the Assembly, I'm in this for the long haul," she pledges.

If a fresh round of negotiations begins in coming weeks, Armstrong's Strangford constituents have a novel idea to improve transparency.

"They've suggested televising the talks," she says. "They believe too much has gone on behind closed doors. Let the people see the colour of their politicians' money."

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