To the complete indifference of the overwhelming majority of the population, the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Féin continue to disagree over a number of key issues, most notably the timetable for the devolution of policing and justice. Last week it was reported that Peter Robinson was amenable to a 12 month timetable. This week it is reported that Sinn Féin are insisting it is done by the Autumn (perhaps with the IRA Army Council standing down over the summer?).
Meanwhile, the DUP are eager to end the uncertainty around academic selection and Sinn Féin are keen to get an Irish Language Act. Sinn Féin and the DUP are probably both keen to postpone water charging.
Interestingly, in response to a question from the Conservative Shadow Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, the government have signalled that, at present, they intend to retain the proceeds of all sell offs of surplus Army bases. It might be that the government are still trying to use this as a method of encouraging the parties to reach agreement. (Then again this might be all agreed between the DUP and Labour as part of their deal on the 42 day vote and this is simply a smokescreen that can be dispensed with at a more appropriate time.)
The DUP appear to be in the stronger position. While they would like to end the uncertainty over academic selection, they know selection will continue, with the ‘rebel’ grammars conducting their own tests. The DUP, almost certainly have a commitment for £200million to delay water charging but ironically it is Sinn Féin who are probably more vulnerable on this issue than the other parties. They were most strident in their criticism of water charging at election time and it would be their Minister, Conor Murphy, who would have to introduce the tax. The SDLP have probably already drafted their leaflets about the ‘Murphy Tax’.
Sinn Féin need to steady their supporters by delivering policing and justice and an Irish Language Act but appear only to have the disbandment of the Army Council to bring to the negotiating table.
This may explain why Sinn Féin have apparently started to block the Executive from making any decisions and to again brief certain journalists about the possibility that the entire Executive could collapse. Even a decision on the replacement policy for Planning Policy Statement 14 – the controversial policy on restricting building in the countryside – has now been caught up in the delaying tactics.
It simply does not seem credible that Sinn Féin would collapse the institutions. Such a course of action would be a gift to Republican dissidents in the run up to the European election. It would be an admission of failure by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. In addition, the party would not get a lot of sympathy from the UK, Irish or US administrations. The governments may feel that the DUP should commit to devolving policing and justice but would point out that the IRA delayed decommissioning for many years. Also, at the end of the day, the Sinn Féin leadership signed up to the St Andrews Agreement, which contained a suggested date not a deadline for transferring policing and justice powers to the Assembly.
The collapsing of the institutions would not reflect well on Gordon Brown and any new Direct Rule regime might simply conduct a ‘holding exercise’. They would be unlikely to even introduce an Irish Language Act in such a scenario let alone introduce joint British/Irish control of policing and justice