The stakes could not be any higher for Northern Ireland’s politicians. Tony Blair has described the talks as a “one-off opportunity” to build a lasting peaceful future for the province. It has already been four years since the assembly last gathered at Stormont.
The historic power sharing assembly was born back in 1998 when pro-British unionists and pro-Irish republican parties decided they could work together on a plan backed by a majority of voters in the Good Friday Agreement. But barely four months later, those against the assembly showed opposition in the most bloody way. The bombing of Omagh by the Real IRA was the deadliest attack ever carried out in Northern Ireland.
The entire deal collapsed amid recrimination shortly afterwards amid allegations of a republican spying ring at Stormont. The police raided Sinn Fein’s offices and, as a result, Ulster Unionists said they could no longer sit in government with the party. On-off negotiations led to joint proposals from Dublin and London to tie up all the final elements of a political deal.
But that agreement collapsed when republicans rejected the main unionist party’s demand for photographic evidence of arms decommissioning. The assembly’s resumption has also been blocked by the province’s troubled social situation. IRA members were blamed for murdering Robert McCartney after a pub brawl – a death which sparked a highly unusual display of public anger and accusations that the militant group was still involved in criminality.
As leader of the main unionist party, the Reverend Ian Paisley, may hold the key if the talks are to be successful. He has blocked power-sharing with moderate nationalists for years and while his old enemies appear to have changed, his hardline stance against republicans seems as tough as ever. He welcomed last week’s decommissioning report on IRA weapons but he’s calling for further evidence.