DESPITE THE failure of the Leeds Castle talks last month, the British and Irish governments are continuing talks with Sinn Fein and the DUP in an attempt to resurrect the Northern Ireland Assembly and to re-establish an Executive.
Some media commentators argue that the fact that the nationalist/Catholic Sinn Fein party and the loyalist/Protestant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) are now the two largest parties will result in greater long-term stability as a deal reached between the extremes will be more likely to stick.
Their logic largely rests on the argument that the leading members of Sinn Fein and the DUP are keen to once again get their hands on the levers of power. Whilst there is some truth in this, it is a minor factor and will not determine the course of events in the next period.
There have been strong hints that the IRA are preparing a major act of arms decommissioning and will stand down over the next period. Sinn Fein clearly want a return of the Stormont Executive and are prepared to make further concessions on this basis.
Sinn Fein's thinking is also increasingly dominated by their electoral prospects in the South. As things stand, they expect to do very well in the next Dail (parliament) elections.
A coalition government with Fianna Fail cannot be ruled out even as early as after the next election. A clean, "responsible" Sinn Fein, in government in the North and shorn of paramilitary links, would be more attractive to Fianna Fail.
The DUP have nothing to gain by reaching an early deal with Sinn Fein however. Of vital importance is the fact that two elections are due (the locals and Westminster) next year. The DUP sees these contests as opportunities to emphasise their dominance over the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) led by David Trimble. They will not see any mileage in taking a more moderate position until these elections are out of the way.
The talks are likely to be dragged out and could eventually run into the sand. This would create a stalemate and the continuation of direct rule, at least until the Westminster and local elections are done and dusted.
It is not entirely ruled out that the DUP and Sinn Fein could eventually do a deal. Major problems remain however that will prove very difficult, perhaps impossible, to overcome. This is not primarily because of the personalities who lead these parties, but because of the deepened divisions on the ground between the two communities.
Sectarian divisions have been very real on the streets over the summer. In particular, disagreements over parades continue to cause problems. As some contentious parades become part of history, others come to the fore. The changing demography of many areas means that, year on year, more towns, villages and arterial routes become "Nationalist/ Republican" and a potential source of conflict.
Over the summer Sinn Fein gave the appearance of seeking to dampen down sectarian conflict. Gerry Kelly has found himself on the receiving end of criticism from various Republican dissidents for his role during clashes at Ardoyne shops. An entire Sinn Fein cumann (branch) in the Rathenraw estate in Antrim town has resigned, at least in part because of their perception that the Sinn Fein leadership isn't robust in their defence of the area from loyalist attacks.
The Sinn Fein leadership are anxious to distance themselves from the more naked expressions of sectarianism at the moment. Sectarian clashes now conflict with their strategy of seeking governmental power North and South. This does not mean however that their strategy and overall direction is not sectarian.
The "peace process" has not solved any of the day to day problems of working-class people. There may have been a downturn in the violence but the gulf separating the communities is wider than ever.
Sectarian parties are part of the problem not part of the solution. The only way forward is to overcome division and ultimately that means challenging both the DUP and Sinn Fein and building a socialist political alternative capable of uniting the working class communities.
This can only be achieved when working-class people from both sides of the divide move into united struggle. The trade unions, genuine community groups and campaigning groups such as the 'We Won't Pay Campaign' (against water charges and privatisation) have the key roles to play in overcoming division and delivering a real peace process.