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Direct rule looms until a fresh power-sharing paradigm can be found

Secretary of State James Brokenshire may be forced to call a second election – the third within 12 months. Picture by Mal McCann
Analysis by John Manley

WE'D all seen the spoilers beforehand but the political drama at Stormont went ahead regardless, allowing the protagonists one last turn in the limelight.

The assembly will limp on until the middle of next week and ministers will remain in office until the eve of polling, but the institutions are now effectively on ice for a indefinite period.

To think they can be restored in the days or weeks after the March 2 election is optimistic in the extreme.

At the very minimum, the public and most politicians would expect a rigorous and transparent inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive to have at least delivered preliminary findings, but Sinn Féin's insistence that this crisis goes deeper means a lot more will be required to get devolution back on track.

While questions around Arlene Foster's oversight of the botched green energy scheme were the catalyst for bringing Stormont down, the assertion by republicans that there has been an accumulation of many issues has quickly become an accepted narrative.

Ten years of 'nose-holding' and 'curried yoghurt' jibes were the public manifestation of the DUP's deep dislike and distrust of Sinn Féin, but it has been argued that those sentiments extended to broader nationalism and its attendant culture.

It therefore won't be so much a case of rebuilding relations but creating a new paradigm for power-sharing which Sinn Féin says will demand more than mere lip service from unionism.

There are those who predict that the DUP will be wounded on the other side of March 2, making the party more amenable to compromise, but there is so far little evidence to support that assertion.

The Ulster Unionists have done their best to exploit Mrs Foster's problems in recent weeks but it is far-fetched to expect them to suddenly overturn their rival's double digit advantage in an assembly that will have 18 fewer MLAs.

On the other side of the house the expectation is that Sinn Féin and the SDLP will continue to suffer collectively from a declining share of the vote.

Republicans' growing scepticism of power-sharing, coupled with the SDLP's criticisms of the executive's performance, are unlikely to entice disillusioned nationalist voters back to the polling station.

A period of direct rule is now looming and despite calls from Colum Eastwood for joint authority, it's likely power will reside solely with the Secretary of State James Brokenshire.

If no solution comes from the talks that are expected to follow March's election, he will be reluctant to take us back to the polls for a third time in 12 months.

However, potential alternatives to another election at the moment are looking thin on the ground.

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