FOR the past 20 years, since the Good Friday agreement, Northern Ireland has enjoyed relative stability and peace.
Despite the continuing sectarianism and inter-party disagreements, the power-sharing arrangements have worked fairly well.
This is now at risk, for two reasons.
First, Brexit could recreate the hard border and customs posts which we all thought were a thing of the past.
Second, we have the current stand-off between the DUP and Sinn Fein, resulting in the suspension of the Northern Ireland Government.
If I lived in Belfast today, I would not support any of the Unionist parties or Sinn Fein. My vote would go to either the Alliance or the SDLP.
That said, it is understandable that Catholic people have been angered by the DUP leader, Arlene Foster, to such an extent that differential turnout, favouring Sinn Fein over the DUP, combined with some vote switching to Sinn Fein, ensured that the two main sectarian parties were neck and neck in the recent election.
Some unionist voters are also disenchanted with Mrs Foster, but they held their noses and voted DUP because they oppose Sinn Fein’s aspiration for a united Ireland.
Sinn Fein’s demand that Mrs Foster stands down, pending the result of the inquiry into the botched heating scheme, would seem reasonable to most impartial observers.
The most likely way to break this deadlock would be for Mrs Foster’s DUP colleagues, rather than Sinn Fein, to persuade her to vacate her post, at least temporarily, provided that the Sinn Fein leader, Michelle O’Neill, undertakes to accept Mrs Foster’s reinstatement, should the inquiry exonerate her.
If they could proceed on that basis, the assembly could be reconstituted, thus averting a further period of direct rule from Westminster.
It is hard to be optimistic but this is a very important issue, not just for Northern Ireland but also for Britain and for the Republic of Ireland.