Arlene Foster resigned as Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, which set in motion the seven-day deadline for Sinn Féin and the DUP to agree to return to government together.
If they fail to come to an agreement, Stormont’s executive will cease to function and Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis will be forced to set a date for an election “within a reasonable period of time.”
The DUP has appointed Lagan Valley MPP Paul Givan as the new premier, but it’s not that simple.
Sinn Féin must approve it and agree to return to the power-sharing administration by appointing a deputy prime minister – that person would again be Michelle O’Neill.
Based on statements from both sides yesterday, the omens are not good.
Sinn Féin accused the DUP of “acting in bad faith”, the DUP suggesting that a failure by Republicans to reach an agreement “would play quickly and freely with people’s lives”, a reference to waiting lists of hospitals in Northern Ireland, which now exceed 300,000.
Sinn Féin made it clear what he wanted in return for his approval of Mr Givan: a firm commitment to implement a long-promised Irish language law.
In order for a bill to have a chance of being introduced before the next parliamentary elections scheduled for next May, the process must begin before Stormont takes her summer recess break on July 10.
Parties have been mulling over since Edwin Poots became DUP’s new leader, but ghost boxing ends and real negotiations begin as Ms Foster resigns
A pledge to an Irish language law was part of the New Decade New Approach (NDNA) agreement in January last year, which paved the way for the restoration of the Stormont Assembly after a suspension three years.
Mr Poots was one of the main architects, along with Conor Murphy, Stormont’s finance minister and Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator.
The two men will lead the negotiations this week. They have known each other for over 20 years and are said to have a good working relationship.
“They both come from farming backgrounds and are both honest speakers,” said one person who saw them in negotiation mode.
“They can talk about calving and lambing, but they can also talk about turkey and get things done.”
The couple went for a walk and private chat at the British Irish Council summit in Co Fermanagh on Friday.
As the Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Ms Foster and Ms O’Neill participated in a press conference, Mr Poots and Mr Murphy could be seen in heated conversation.
Body language sounded good. When asked if the smiles meant a deal had been made, Mr Poots said “conversations continue”.
Mr Murphy said they had a good conversation “about ducks and breeding”. They then went to have a “cuppa” and chat with Tánaiste Leo Varadkar.
Mr Poots has said on several occasions in recent weeks that he intends to keep all commitments, including those on language.
Each time, Sinn Féin’s response has been to demand action, not what he called “fluffy words”.
The DUP chief and his allies have also repeatedly mentioned the need to manage spiraling hospital waiting lists in Northern Ireland, stressing that this is their top priority.
The message is simple: what could be more important, an act of Irish speaking or facing a health crisis?
The aim is to put pressure on Sinn Féin to return to government.
“Will Sinn Féin seriously collapse the assembly as Northern Ireland is still in the midst of a pandemic and facing an unprecedented health services crisis,” a senior DUP source asked.
For Sinn Féin, it’s about trust. Mr Poots fingerprints are all over the New Decade and New Approach deal and he has said on several occasions that he is a man of his word and will honor the commitment to the legislation.
“He needs to be tested,” a source said. “It is very good to say that you are a man of your word, you have to demonstrate that too.”
Mr Givan’s choice of DUP as Prime Minister raised concerns within Sinn Féin, as the Lagan Valley MP infuriated Irish language activists in his role as Minister for Communities, when he withdrew a £ 55,000 scholarship to send underprivileged children to Donegal Gaeltacht.
Sinn Féin fears that whatever his own intentions Mr Poots may not be able to persuade his party’s hard-line supporters to deliver something that many have made clear that they strongly oppose.
The starting gun for the last round of political negotiations in Stormont will not be officially fired until Ms Foster leaves office, but the two sides have already exchanged early opening rounds.
This followed a meeting at Belfast City Hall yesterday between Ms O’Neill, Mr Poots and Mr Givan.
Shortly thereafter, a prominent Sinn Féin source accused the new DUP leader of being “misleading” when he publicly pledged to implement all aspects of the New Decade New Approach deal.
“We believe they are in bad faith. We do not believe they will abide by the Irish Language Law,” they added.
“Our position is that the appointment of the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister must be accompanied by Irish language legislation.”
DUP’s response referred to its repeated comments on health as the priority.
“No one would forgive Sinn Féin for playing fast and freely with the lives of people in Northern Ireland,” a spokesperson said.
“The DUP leadership is determined to enter government, respect the division of power and continue its work. It is for others to follow.
“We remain committed to the New Decade New Approach agreement and hope to see it implemented in all its parts.”
Mr Poots and his advisers are perhaps betting that Sinn Féin cannot refuse to return to government due to an Irish language dispute, as the public backlash would be harsh.
Sinn Féin in turn can calculate that the DUP will not want to be accused of knocking down Stormont due to being “mean” and dishonorable by refusing to deliver something to which he is committed.
He may also believe that with the DUP clearly fractured right now, his new leader would not be in favor of an election.
Sinn Féin is aware that he would face a backlash from much of his own base if he did not implement the long promised legislation.
Likewise, many within the DUP see the Irish language as electoral suicide within the Protestant, Unionist and Loyalist (PUL) community.
Sinn Féin’s message is that he cannot afford to participate in the upcoming parliamentary elections without having implemented the Irish language legislation – the DUP’s view is that he cannot afford to participate in the elections after delivering it.
The governments of Dublin and London are hopeful that a snap election is a prospect both sides want to avoid and that it is in their interests to find common ground: the language of compromise.