Brexit, elections and RHI: Key dates for the 2019 diary

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BrexitImage source, Getty Images

If you thought 2018 was a year that packed plenty of political punches, brace for impact because 2019 isn't likely to be much calmer.

Oh, and it's not just because of Brexit either.

BBC News NI looks at some of the upcoming political events to note down in your diaries.

Brexit end game?

Image source, PA
Image caption,
Theresa May has faced warnings from DUP leader Arlene Foster to 'ditch the Irish border backstop' from her withdrawal agreement

2019 won't be completely about Brexit, but what happens over the course of the next few months will monumentally shape UK history.

The UK is due to leave the EU on 29 March, but while that much is certain, but very little else is.

MPs head back to Parliament this week, with more days of debate on the government's deal set before a vote on the plan on 15 January.

Prime Minister Theresa May will have hoped the break calmed tempers of those opposed to her deal, but at this stage the plan still seems unlikely to get enough support in the Commons.

The DUP, which props up the Conservative government in a confidence-and-supply pact, has insisted it will vote the plan down unless the prime minister makes changes to the Irish border backstop proposal.

If the deal doesn't get through, Mrs May has several options facing her - read what they are here.

Stormont: Two years with no government

Image source, Charles McQuillan
Image caption,
Almost two years since Stormont collapsed, there is little sign that a breakthrough is on the cards

When the late deputy first minister Martin McGuinness announced on 9 January 2017 that he was resigning after a row with the DUP over a green energy scheme scandal, politics on the hill went into a period of deep freeze.

Two years on from that day, Stormont's two biggest parties - the DUP and Sinn Féin - remain polar opposites.

There were virtually no talks last autumn, partially due to the Irish and British governments focusing their energies on Brexit.

But will the impending two-year anniversary of no government spur on some change?

For now, it seems unlikely.

Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley had mentioned kick-starting talks again in the new year, but journalists working the political beat have yet to hear anything official.

Watch this space.

Two political parties become one?

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Colum Eastwood has been the leader of the SDLP since 2015

The potential of one of Northern Ireland's main political parties merging with a party in the Republic of Ireland has been talked about for years.

But just before the new year, reports again swirled after the Irish Times said the SDLP and Fianna Fáil were poised to announce a process of "phased integration" in 2019.

A significant announcement is expected to happen early this year, possibly next month, a source told the paper.

While senior party members are staying tight-lipped, the speculation hasn't been welcomed by everyone in the SDLP.

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Some Fianna Fáil members in Northern Ireland are also opposed to any new alliance with the SDLP.

But last year, two Fianna Fáil politicians were sacked from their party roles after announcing Sorcha McAnespy as a Fianna Fáil candidate in Northern Ireland for May's council elections.

Fianna Fáil said it had made "no decision" on contesting the election.

We might not have to wait much longer on a decision now, though.

RHI inquiry's findings

Image source, Press Eye
Image caption,
The RHI Inquiry panel is made of up of Sir Patrick Coghlin (centre), Dame Una O'Brien and Dr Keith MacLean

Having grabbed headlines on an almost daily basis in 2018, the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme finally came to a close.

In 114 days of oral hearings, the public heard heard hundreds of hours of detail about the scandal that brought down Stormont, and offered an insight into the "grubby world" of politics in Northern Ireland.

The hearings saw top political brass from the DUP appear to give evidence, sometimes facing difficult questioning from the inquiry's chairman, Sir Patrick Coghlin.

He has not yet set a date for the final publication of his report, but on the final day of hearings he warned that some individuals and organisations would likely face significant criticism in the document.

At one stage, it looked like the report could be released by the end of April, but the process of evidence gathering is still continuing behind closed doors and could delay its publication.

Election klaxon at the ready

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Image caption,
Voters braving the rain at a polling station in Lisburn during last year's Westminster election

Some people might read this and be thinking: "Not another one!"

For the eighth time in six years, voters in Northern Ireland will head to the polls on 2 May - this time to elect politicians to eleven councils.

Some parties have already started to announce their candidates, with more expected in the next few months.

While election fatigue has intensified in recent years, May's poll will be interesting for a variety of reasons.

What will have happened with Brexit? How will voters rate the political parties after two years without a functioning assembly? And will we see political parties and candidates running who have never previously stood in Northern Ireland?

BBC News NI can't answer those questions right now, but we will have full coverage of the 2019 council elections - as well as all of the other political events taking place this year - to keep you up to date.