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2017 - the year of no government

Martin McGuinness leaving Stormont Castle in his car after resigning as Deputy First Minister. Picture by Mal McCann

TOMORROW marks a year since the power sharing institutions at Stormont collapsed. Two elections, Martin McGuinness's death, months of talks, several missed `deadlines,' and the shock resignation of the Secritary of State have followed. 

On Monday January 9 2017, Martin McGuinness made his painful way by car from his Derry home to the office in Stormont which - on and off - for almost 10 years had been the base from which he carried out his duties as deputy first minister.

His re-emergence sparked wide-spread shock.

It had been some time since he had been seen in public, with fevered rumours about his ill-health swirling. A missed ministerial trip to China a month earlier was first attributed to "unforeseen personal circumstances", later explained as "a health scare".

However, it was clear from his frail appearance and hoarse voice that his physical decline was to be rapid and likely terminal.

The shock of the deputy first minister's visual transformation from familiar Sinn Féin strongman almost overshadowed the significance of what Mr McGuinness had risen from his sick bed to say.

He had already drafted a resignation letter which would also remove Arlene Foster from her joint-office position of First Minister and lead to the collapse of the power-sharing Executive.

In his last public appearance, Mr McGuinness insisted there would be "no return to the status quo" and called for fresh Assembly elections.

The letter stated that the "equality, mutual respect and all-Ireland approaches enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement have never been fully embraced by the DUP" and denounced that party's handling of the RHI scandal as "completely out of step" with public mood.

The green-energy initiative, dubbed `cash for ash', had launched in 2012 during Mrs Foster's tenure as enterprise minister and allowed businesses to receive huge subsidies to keep wood-fired boilers going - even to heat empty sheds.

It eventually cost the taxpayer around £490 million and, while the DUP leader moved from saying she could not be expected to scrutinise "every single jot and tittle" in her department to admitting there had been "a catalogue of mistakes", she refused Sinn Féin calls to stand aside.

Arlene Foster pictured at Stormont with Sinn Féin northern leader, Michelle O'Neill.

The DUP appear to have been amongst those who underestimated the hard line Sinn Féin were preparing to take.

The party indicated that the scrapping of a £50000 Irish language bursary scheme just before Christmas was the "straw that broke the camel's back" and refused to nominate a deputy first minister when Stormont returned on January 16, despite efforts at reconciliation by British prime minister Theresa May.

An assembly election was triggered, in which Mr McGuinness did not run, with Michelle O'Neill becoming Sinn Féin's northern leader on January 23.

Northern Ireland went to the polls on March 2, with the DUP marginally holding on to its position as the largest party in the north, losing 10 seats and returning 28 in the new 90 member Assembly.

Sinn Féin, meanwhile, made significant gains, its total standing at 27 and the overall result saw a landmark end of the unionist majority at Stormont.

Within days talks had begun between the DUP, Sinn Féin and the then Secretary of State James Brokenshire to form a new power-sharing Executive.

Mrs Foster claimed the restoration of devolution was "doable" and Mr Brokenshire set a three-week deadline to form an executive.

A day later, on March 7, Sinn Féin walked out of talks with Ms O'Neill accusing the Secretary of State of engaging in "waffle, waffle and more waffle" over legacy issues.

Later that month, Mr McGuinness died aged 66, with much made of a brief handshake between Mrs Foster and Ms O'Neill at his funeral.

It proved to be a false dawn, with Ms O'Neill saying the talks at Stormont Castle had run their course and the party would not be supporting nominations for first and deputy first minister.

By now, in late March, the DUP leader was publicly voicing her opinion that there was "little to suggest that Sinn Féin want to secure agreement", accusing the party of resisting involving the other parties in discussions "at every opportunity".

On March 27, a 4pm deadline for agreement to form a new Stormont government passed.

Alan Lewis - PhotopressBelfast.co.uk 16/1/2017.Mandatory Credit - Picture by Justin Kernoghan.Silence falls on Parliamnet Buildings, Stormont tonight - Northern Ireland will go to the polls on 2 March to elect a new Assembly after the executive collapsed over a botched green energy scheme.Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire was legally obliged to call the election after negotiations failed.Stormont was plunged into crisis after the resignation of Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister last week...

The DUP regained ground in June's Westminster election winning 10 of the 18 seats as Theresa May lost her majority. With the SDLP wiped out in Westminster and Sinn Féin not taking its seats, there was now no nationalist voice in the British parliament for the first time since before the Troubles.

Within weeks the DUP had agreed a "confidence and supply" deal with the Conservatives, giving the unionist party significant influence with the British government and a promised £1 billion bonus for Northern Ireland.

In Belfast talks spluttered on, with another notional deadline missed in on June 29.

By October, the phrase `British government-imposed deadline' had become as meaningless as it was ubiquitous and was once again missed.

In the meantime, while staunchly refusing to accept the responsibility of direct rule, Mr Brokenshire reallocated underspends and other money in two monitoring rounds.

He did not go further and set the budget that the executive was due to agree for 2017/18 until November, when the secretary of state warned the civil service was "within days" of running out of mone".

In recent weeks the suggestion of `hothousing' talks in an English country house has been mooted - and roundly rejected by Sinn Féin and the DUP.

Mrs Foster is now calling for a final, short round of talks with direct rule brought in if they fail.

It now looks as though the timing of any such talks will be impacted on the shock resignation today of Mr Brokenshire due to health concerns. 

James Brokenshire said talks between the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin had failed to reach agreement to establish an executive Picture Mal McCann.

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