What caused the Stormont powersharing crisis and what do the latest talks mean?

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A No Entry sign outside Parliament Buildings at Stormont in Belfast.

The powersharing crisis at Stormont has been running on for more than two years. Northern Ireland’s two biggest parties Sinn Fein and the DUP have been in the eye of the political storm with both leaders refusing to move in the stand-off.

What caused Stormont to collapse?

The controversy over the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) triggered the fallout of the last Sinn Fein/DUP-led coalition. The ill-fated eco subsidy scheme left the administration facing a potential £500 million overspend and the late Sinn Fein deputy first minister Martin McGuinness quit the executive – a move that pulled the executive down – in protest at the DUP’s handling of the furore. A lengthy public inquiry into the flawed energy scheme ended at the end of last year. However, one of the biggest sticking points is now the stand-off over the establishment of an Irish language act.

Are there other issues dividing the parties?

Yes, Sinn Fein and the DUP are at odds over the region’s ongoing ban on same sex marriage. The pro-Brexit DUP and pro-Remain Sinn Fein have very different takes on the UK’s exit from the EU as well. Stalled mechanisms to deal with the legacy of the Troubles is another source of contention. But there is a growing view that none of these would, in themselves, prevent an executive being formed. It seemingly all hinges on the Irish language, which is a key demand of Sinn Fein’s.

What has been the impact on the public services in Northern Ireland?

The health and education sectors, among many other government departments, have suffered financially since the collapse of Stormont. Representatives from nurseries, primary schools and secondary schools have raised major concerns over budget cuts. Staff from schools have highlighted the issues over the shortfall in Northern Ireland’s education budget to MPs. Staff have said they are at breaking point because of the challenges. The health sector also continues to suffer with growing waiting lists and staff shortages. Health professionals have complained about the waiting lists – the highest in the UK – but without a minister to address questions it’s difficult to get a clear picture of the extent of the problem as well as addressing it.

How did previous talks end?

Despite a number of efforts to reconcile the two largest parties, talks have ended in failure. The last talks process to restore devolved government broke down on Valentine’s Day 2018 after the two parties clashed on what had actually been agreed. In the last round of talks, Secretary of State Karen Bradley cut MLAs wages to put pressure on politicians. In February this year, Ms Bradley initiated discussions between the main parties, however that too ended without any consensus on the outstanding issues.

What is the latest round of talks about and why now?

The fresh round of talks comes after several political parties wrote to Ms Bradley in the wake of the murder of journalist Lyra McKee. The DUP says it wants to see the Northern Ireland Assembly up and running immediately, and has called for a time-limited process to deal with outstanding issues. This idea, however, was rejected by Sinn Fein in September 2017. Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald this week said that her party will not “capitulate” on an Irish language act for Northern Ireland in a bid to resolve the political impasse. The all-party discussions are expected to start after next week’s council elections.

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