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.
“This crisis has a different feel to it,” he added. “There’s a much more profound question over the direction of travel and whether power-sharing is sustainable. And that begs the question: What happens next?”
In the short term, civil servants have been left in charge of the day-to-day management of the region. But if the impasse continues, many fear that decisions will be made by ministers in London, a system known as “direct rule” that the 1998 agreement was meant to end. In the absence of a Northern Irish finance minister, the British government has already made the first step toward “direct rule” — passing an interim budget for Northern Ireland on Monday to ensure that salaries can be paid until March.
The specter of Brexit compounds the crisis: When the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, border controls may be reintroduced between Northern and southern Ireland for the first time since the Good Friday Agreement was introduced.
Some now question whether the agreement has in essence collapsed, and fear, if not a return to anything like a full-blown conflict, then at least a rise in sporadic acts of paramilitary intimidation.
“I don’t mean to be dramatic or anything, but I do think the Good Friday Agreement is effectively dead,” said Ms. Hanna, who represents the Social Democratic and Labour Party, Sinn Fein’s main nationalist rival.
“I don’t think there’s any real support for violence, but you can see how quickly things can unravel,” she added. “It’s very bleak, and it is something to worry about.”
A Stagnated State
For now, civil servants are keeping the machinery of the state in motion. But as unelected employees, they must simply apply the decisions made by the elected government during the last financial year, meaning that they can neither react to changing circumstances nor increase their budgets in line with inflation.
This has led to stasis and, in some cases, cuts to jobs and services. In one high-profile case, officials were forced to scrap an intensive support program for around 1,000 of the region’s most vulnerable children and teenagers, even though the program had led to a significant drop in antisocial behavior and a rise in school attendance.
These children were “the first victims of this political impasse,” said Charlie Mack, the chief executive of Extern, the charity that ran the program on the government’s behalf. “Which is disgraceful.”
The health system has also been affected. With the longest wait times in the United Kingdom, the sector had been due for a major overhaul this year. But that has been on hold since the start of the crisis, said Janice Smyth, the Northern Ireland director at the Royal College of Nursing, the world’s largest nursing union. “It cannot happen until we get a minister,” she said.
Across the region’s charitable sector, which is significantly dependent on state funding, charities have become wary of starting new projects or hiring staff, making them less able to respond to social problems that require new strategies.
“There’s been a stagnation,” said Seamus McAleavey, the chief executive of Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action, a group that represents more than 1,000 nongovernmental organizations. “Treading water is probably a fairly good description.”
The Blame Game
Yet these administrative challenges have not yet encouraged politicians to reach a settlement. In fact, their differences have increased as the year has developed.
When they left the coalition in January, Sinn Fein originally intended to force the resignation of the D.U.P. leader, Arlene Foster, who was accused of corruption. But after Ms. Foster refused to step down, Sinn Fein expanded its demands, calling on the D.U.P. to agree to give the Irish language the same legal status as English and to legalize same-sex marriage. (In Scotland and Wales, the Scottish and Welsh languages already have an equal legal footing with English, and same-sex marriage has been permitted in the rest of the United Kingdom since 2014.)
Both sides have been accused of not being truly invested in a compromise.
After the Conservative party lost its majority this summer in the national Parliament in Westminster, it turned to the D.U.P.’s small group of national lawmakers to ensure that it remained in power. And there are now suspicions that “the Westminster deal has made them less interested in Stormont politics,” said Cillian McGrattan, a politics professor at Ulster University. “I think they have a view that if they’re going to get things done, they’re going to get them done in Westminster.”
The D.U.P. dismisses this argument and says that in fact, it is Sinn Fein that has ulterior motives for maintaining the standoff. Since Sinn Fein also operates in the Republic of Ireland, it fears that it will harm its reputation among left-wing voters in Dublin if it is forced to pursue neoliberal policies while in government in Belfast, said Sammy Wilson, a D.U.P. lawmaker.
Sinn Fein scoffs at this. “Why would it not be great for Sinn Fein to be running things?” asked Mairtin O Muilleoir, the Sinn Fein finance minister at the time of the coalition’s collapse. “The months I spent as finance minister burnished and enhanced Sinn Fein’s reputation for getting things done.”
A New Paradigm?
As the standoff drags on, and polarization increases, people find it harder to envisage Northern Ireland as an autonomous entity. “We’re back to this binary situation where people either see it as a problematic part of the U.K. or as a part of united Ireland,” said Graham Walker, a politics professor at Queen’s University, Belfast.
To resolve the crisis in the long term, some suggest reshaping the Good Friday Agreement to allow for other kinds of coalitions, instead of a mandatory partnership between the region’s two largest nationalist and unionist factions. Others predict a referendum on Irish reunification within a decade, arguing that the current dysfunction, coupled with the fallout from Brexit, may encourage moderate nationalists to see a united Ireland as a more urgent priority than they did previously.
Whereas Stormont was once seen as a symbol of hope and progress, citizens of all backgrounds now see it as an embarrassment.
Ricky Routledge, the head of a homeless charity who meets lawmakers at Stormont as part of her work, said she once felt a sense of civic pride on her visits there.
“Now, I go up to Stormont and it’s this great big echoey, empty, impotent place,” Ms. Routledge said. “And it’s heartbreaking.”
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