Northern Ireland Is Sinking Into a ‘Profound Crisis’
BELFAST, Northern Ireland — The Northern Ireland Assembly’s palatial building in Stormont, in the hills that overlook Belfast, is an eerie place these days.
This time last year, its grand lobby bustled with lawmakers, lobbyists and civil servants, but this week it is empty and lifeless. Further inside, a few tourists warmed the blue seats of the debating chamber, rather than the 90 lawmakers elected to work there. Even their microphones had been removed.
“It’s a total ghost town,” said Claire Hanna, one of those lawmakers. “It’s dead.”
And so it has been since as long ago as January, when Northern Ireland’s governing coalition collapsed. That created a power vacuum at Stormont that has still not been filled, paralyzing the region’s already pinched institutions and threatening a 1998 peace deal that largely ended three decades of fighting between nationalist and unionist factions.
Since that deal, known as the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland has been run mostly by a devolved regional government that must, in effect, be led by a coalition between the region’s largest nationalist party and its largest unionist counterpart.
But in January this delicate arrangement was upended when Sinn Fein, which hopes for a united Ireland one day, withdrew from a coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party, which wants Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom.
The government stopped working and the assembly stopped meeting. A major overhaul of the region’s ailing health system was postponed, and all long-term decisions about government spending were put on hold.
“This is a more profound crisis than we’ve had at other times in the last 20 years,” said Stephen Farry, the deputy leader of the Alliance Party, a centrist group that does not identify as either nationalist or unionist.
The government was shaken again this weekend, with the news that Gerry Adams would stand down as president of Sinn Féin. His departure at the end of the year may help the party achieve its goal of becoming a palatable coalition partner in the Irish government, but for Northern Ireland the implications are less clear.
Optimists have expressed hopes that his absence could give the political parties in Belfast more room for maneuver. But combined with the death in March of Mr. Adams’s former colleague, Martin McGuinness, it deprives the government of established leaders who are willing or able to make compromises on both sides of the sectarian divide.
The assembly has previously been suspended, most memorably between 2002 and 2007. “But then there was the sense that this was a blip and the problems would be overcome,” Mr. Farry said.