October 16, 2014
DUBLIN (AP) — Negotiations to bolster Northern Ireland's power-sharing government are opening Thursday in Belfast as the 7-year-old alliance of British Protestants and Irish Catholics faces its toughest political test.
The United Kingdom government is overseeing the talks at Stormont House involving local leaders, who have grown increasingly divided over a growing list of issues. The diplomatic push is expected to run twice-weekly alongside the continuing operation of Northern Ireland's five-party administration.
At stake is the central achievement of the Good Friday peace accord of 1998: the formation, in 2007, of a governing coalition of former enemies committed to ending a 45-year conflict that has claimed 3,700 lives. But many of the conflict points that stir violence remain unresolved, particularly sectarian parades and the display of British and Irish symbols.
The major Irish nationalist party, Sinn Fein, wants existing restrictions on Protestant parades strengthened and more British symbols removed. The Democratic Unionist Party, Northern Ireland's primary defender of political union with Britain, seeks the opposite. Street confrontations over marches and flags triggered several bouts of Belfast rioting in 2013, but cooler heads have prevailed this year.
More troublingly, opposite sides of the coalition have spent the past year locked in a costly blinking contest over Northern Ireland's budget. Sinn Fein is blocking welfare reforms already enacted in Britain, triggering an 87 million-pound ($138 million) penalty on Northern Ireland's British-provided finances and forcing cuts in services, including the police. Bigger budget penalties loom.
If the deadlock isn't broken, analysts agree that the Northern Ireland Assembly could be dissolved for early elections and a cross-community coalition would have to be painfully reconstructed. Filling the political void until then would be resumed "direct rule" from London, the system that prevailed in Northern Ireland from 1972 through much of the 2000s.