3 options for the future of Northern Ireland

What does the future hold for the province that has been in limbo for so long?

According to the BBC, the civil service has announced that a new Northern Ireland budget needs to be sorted by the 8th February. The province has been in a difficult position since early 2017 when concerns over the Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme brought the recently formed coalition between the DUP and Sinn Fein to its knees as Martin McGuiness’ departure from the Deputy First Minister role triggered a fresh election. Subsequently, no deal was reached thus leaving Northern Ireland without a government.

Since then, the DUP in Westminster have become the only thing keeping Theresa May from losing power, but Northern Ireland remains without an executive.

What are the options now?

1. Direct rule

This is probably the most drastic of the options available as it would temporarily shut-down Stormont and shift power over all devolved issues in Northern Ireland to the Westminster government. This most recently happened between 2002 and 2007, but power was restored to Stormont after fresh elections in 2007. If further talks go nowhere, this could the only option.

2. A deal

An agreement seems unlikely after a year of talks going nowhere, but one option is for unionists and nationalists to eventually reach a deal. According to the Belfast Telegraph, the new Northern Ireland Secretary said that in the autumn of 2017, the two sides were near to reaching a deal, suggesting that there is some hope after all.

3. Fresh elections

The other option is new elections although this is unlikely to solve anything as power has to be shared between the unionist and nationalist sides, thus rendering any shifts in power unlikely to move the province any closer to forming a legitimate government. Furthermore, the DUP are unlikely to want a new election as the party won 28 seats in 2017, just one ahead of the 27 won by Sinn Fein. A new election could put Sinn Fein ahead of the DUP and whilst that would be unlikely to make a significant difference overall, the symbolism of the main unionist party not coming first would be hard to stomach for many on their side.