A week is a long time in politics - and doubly true when it comes to Northern Ireland. Now a proposed bill to cut the welfare budget could trigger a political disaster. Peter Geoghegan reports from Belfast.
Last week,images of Prince Charles shaking hands with Irish republican leader Gerry Adams
made news headlines around the world. It seemed Northern Ireland had put its brutal, sectarian past behind it.
On Tuesday, however, a very different image of Northern Ireland was on show in the devolved parliament in Belfast. Amid heated debate from the floor of the Northern Ireland Assembly, a controversial bill on cutting the government's welfare budget was defeated, a result which some fear could collapse of the power-sharing administration.
After months of political wrangling, rival nationalists and unionists could not reach agreement on budget cuts that would bring public sector spending into line with of the rest of the UK. Nationalists and republicans rejected the proposals. Unionists warned that failure to do a deal could leave the Belfast parliament with a £600 million (848 million euros) hole in its budget.
Unionists now want the UK government to take back welfare powers from Belfast to London, but such a move could destablise the devolved parliament. David Ford, leader of the cross-community Alliance Party, said Northern Ireland's political institutions, created as part of aGood Friday peace agreement
in 1998, were "in a very dangerous position."
Sinn Fein, the political voice of the Irish Republican Army during Northern Ireland's 30-year-long conflict, has said that budget cuts would hurt the most vulnerable in Northern Ireland. "This is a time when the (Stormont) executive parties need to stand together to defend our public services, particularly in terms of health, education and welfare," Sinn Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said on Tuesday.
The discord over welfare reforms is the latest in a long line of major disagreements between the unionist and nationalist blocs that control the Northern Irish parliament over everything from dealing with the past to parades and political symbols. But the gloomy attitude among the political parties is increasingly at odds with a Northern Irish public keen to move on from the violence days of "the Troubles."
"There is a general sense of despondency in the Assembly. People don't hate each other but Sinn Fein and the DUP (the Democratic Unionist Party) hate each other," says Alex Kane, a unionist political commentator in Belfast.
This animosity is putting off voters. Northern Ireland recorded the lowest turnout of any part of the UK in this month's general election. Young people in particular are switching off from politics, says Kane.
"These are the post-Agreement generation who were inspired and thought it would be a new society. They decided to stay here, not to leave, but they don't want to join a political party. They don't vote."
That so many are turning away from formal politics is not altogether surprising. Under Northern Ireland's power-sharing arrangements, nationalists and unionists must work together in government. In practice, this means that Northern Ireland has effectively had the same government for more than a decade and a half without a formal opposition.
"There is no major alternative, there is no sign of other parties," says John McCallister, an independent unionist member of the Belfast assembly and former deputy leader of the Ulster Unionists.
Sinn Fein and the DUP, the largest parties in Northern Ireland, draw support almost exclusively from Catholic/nationalist and Protestant/unionist communities, respectively. Publicly both parties frequently appear at loggerheads in public, which mobilizes their voting base but makes the business of running a functioning government difficult.
"We not only need an opposition, we need a government. We need people to admit that they are in government, to stop doing government by peace negotiation," says John McCallister.
Outside forces could yet force a change in Northern Irish politics. Last year's Scottish independence referendum threatened the break-up of Britain, which would have a seismic impact in Belfast. Support for the Scottish National Party continues to grow and another independence vote is likely in the coming years.
Meanwhile, the recently elected Conservative majority government in London is committed to holding areferendum on the UK's membership of the European Union
. The EU was crucial in providing the framework for negotiating peace in Northern Ireland. Leaving the European institutions could be disastrous, says Duncan Morrow, professor of politics at the University of Ulster.
"An EU exit would produce a land border (with the Irish Republic). It would strand Northern Catholics in a state that is asymmetric. It would absolutely put into question the legitimacy of the Police Service of Northern Ireland."
In the balance
For now, the immediate future of Northern Ireland's devolved assembly hangs in the balance. Another stage of the budget process is due to take place in June. Unless a solution is found soon, the government will run out of cash before the end of the summer. The likely alternative is London taking over control of departmental spending and perhaps even fresh elections.
This vista of civil servants replacing elected politicians to run Northern Ireland suggests a country in crisis but for most people the daily reality is very different. "Belfast has never been buzzing as much, it has never been busier," says political strategist Quintin Oliver.
Northern Ireland's on-going government gridlock, which shows no sign of abating, might be the price for bringing stability to what was once the most restive region in Europe, says Oliver.
"Maybe in historical terms these 15 years are a blink of an eye in creating stability and it is for the next generation to move into a more secular, less partisan politics."