A number of commentators – obviously working on the basis of briefings received from one or other party – are continuing to speculate that the whole Stormont edifice might be about to come crashing down. This seems unlikely for two reasons. Firstly, as mentioned before, given the global economic situation it is unlikely that the voters of Northern Ireland will thank any party that precipitates a November election. Secondly, neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP have been publicly preparing their supporters for an election, of course that could be done fairly rapidly, but one gets the feeling if a collapse was imminent we would see more ‘sounding off’ in public.
Indeed one straw in the wind seems to the fact that while the DUP Leader has continued to issue press releases attacking Sinn Fein, the DUP in general have reined in their attacks on Sinn Fein.
The log jam remains however. Sinn Fein wants movement on the devolution of policing and justice but also wanting an Irish Language Act, a Conflict Transformation Centre at the site of the former HMP Maze and the end of academic selection. The DUP want none of these and have the ability to prevent them.
The Secretary of State, Shaun Woodward has said that unionists must not use the issue of confidence as an excuse for not agreeing to the devolution of policing and justice and greeted the fact that the Assembly Executive and Review Committee has set a five week timetable for their discussions on devolving policing as "welcome progress".
Mr Woodward confirmed that the DUP were under no legal obligation to agree to the devolution of policing and justice. Interestingly, Mr Woodward refused to take the opportunity to rule out legislating to ‘impose’ policing and justice if there is no agreement in the coming months.
Precisely how this would work remains unclear. The government at Westminster could legislate to enforce a timetable. However, this would be opposed by the DUP. It could be the case that it would be easier for the DUP to be ‘forced’ to concede the devolution of policing and justice under threat of Stormont being suspended than to ‘agree’ to it in conjunction with Sinn Fein.
A promise of legislative action at Westminster might keep the Sinn Fein leadership content in the short term and maybe a lot of hot air about the respective parades on 2 November will keep each side’s respective supporters occupied.
The ‘downside’ of such a development for Sinn Fein would be that it would mean the end of any chance of an Irish Language Act or a Conflict Centre at the Maze. Moreover, the passage of time and the development of independent entrance exams mean that Sinn Fein has increasingly already lost out on the question of academic selection.