Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: Odds of a Stormont return after marriage and abortion law changes

Northern Ireland facing dramatic change

Michelle O'Neill
Michelle O'Neill
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

The chances of having the Stormont institutions up and running by the autumn were always slim. After events at Westminster, the odds on Arlene and Michelle heading an Executive seem to have gone the same way as Rory McIlroy's hopes at Royal Portrush.

The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill means provisions on same-sex marriage and abortion will come into effect if devolution isn't restored by October 21.

There appears little incentive whatsoever for Sinn Fein, which wants the law changed on both matters, to reach a deal with the DUP to see a return of the Assembly and Executive by that date.

To do so would mean halting the remarkable progress made at Westminster in the last fortnight to finally bring Northern Ireland legally into line with the rest of the UK, the Republic, and most of western Europe.

The DUP leadership has long realised that fighting same-sex marriage is a lost cause.

Yet the party's top brass still weren't prepared to change policy and risk alienating its traditional base.

Rather, the DUP planned to table a petition of concern in any new Assembly to oppose the move - in the full knowledge that it fell short of the 30 signatures required to be successful.

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On abortion, the party has listened to the heartbreaking stories of Sarah Ewart and others, but refused to budge an inch.

It is notable that during the debate in Parliament on the Northern Ireland Bill amendments, DUP speakers voiced little or no opposition to same-sex marriage, rather focusing their assault on abortion law reform.

With no possibility of the DUP softening its stance on abortion in the near future, Sinn Fein would have to decide that setting the clock back again for abortion rights in Northern Ireland was a price worth paying to restore devolution.

That seems highly unlikely. Sinn Fein changed its policy on abortion in a blaze of publicity last year. Mary Lou McDonald was one of the most high-profile and effective campaigners in the Republic's referendum campaign.

Celebrating the Yes victory in the poll, Ms McDonald and Michelle O'Neill held aloft a banner declaring 'The North Is Next'. To throw away the chance of making that a reality by returning to government with the DUP within the next three months would be unforgivable in the eyes of many Sinn Fein activists and voters.

It's not like there is much faith in working-class nationalist areas on devolution delivering in other areas.

And yet some Stormont talks sources argue that a breakthrough is still a possibility.

The round-table discussions comprising all five parties have been put on hold to allow for intensive DUP-Sinn Fein bilaterals to continue, involving key figures on both sides.

Newry and Armagh MLA Conor Murphy and the DUP's powerful chief executive Timothy Johnston have been locked in dialogue.

Thursday's round-table discussion was postponed, and further bilaterals will take place next week.

Boris Johnson is set to become the new Tory leader and Prime Minister on Tuesday. The DUP will immediately begin negotiating a fresh 'confidence and supply' agreement with him. Secretary of State Karen Bradley will be replaced.

Brexit uncertainty looms as large as ever and the DUP and Sinn Fein have diametrically opposed positions on the matter.

It remains very hard to imagine a deal to restore devolution emerging against such a backdrop.

Same-sex marriage is on course to be introduced here on January 13, 2020. Abortion will be decriminalised from October 22, with new regulations in place from March 31, 2020.

A deal would jeopardise all that and Sinn Fein would surely be very wary of paying the electoral price that returning to Stormont before the October deadline would entail.

The law change will remove both issues from future talks. Although despite sloganising about women's and gay rights, it must be remembered that Sinn Fein was prepared to go into an Executive in February 2018 without securing either.

Both parties clearly want to get their hands back on the levers of power at Stormont.

But an Irish Language Act remains the major stumbling block.

At a time of dramatic change for Northern Ireland, some things seem set to stay the same for the foreseeable future.

Belfast Telegraph


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