The Northern question: is there any point in fresh talks?

The British and Irish governments have a difficult decision to make

DUP leader Arlene Foster making proposals for the return of power-sharing. Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker

DUP leader Arlene Foster making proposals for the return of power-sharing. Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker

 

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, at the end of a four-day trip to Northern Ireland on Tuesday evening, was asked if the talks aimed at reinstating Stormont would, as pencilled in, restart next week.

“We have to wait and see,” he responded.

That, as observers of the endless political process would have realised, was a depressing comment. It was speak for the British and Irish governments being uncertain whether the DUP and Sinn Féin are serious about striking a compromise to restore Stormont or whether both sides were just going through the motions ahead of yet another set of talks ultimately bound for collapse.

There is great mutual distrust between the DUP and Sinn Féin. Some DUP people wonder is Sinn Féin more concentrated on constitutional matters, pushing an all-Ireland agenda and making strides in the South than seeing Stormont functioning again. Is it pursuing a “chaos agenda”, as Alliance’s Stephen Farry has asked?

Sinn Féin in turn asserts that it wants the institutions to work and demands a stand-alone Irish language act to demonstrate that the DUP is serious about respecting nationalists and nationalism. Securing such legislation is demonstrating that unionists, particularly the DUP, can show some manners to nationalists, they argue. “What about respecting our traditions?” the DUP responds.

Round it goes.

Omens not good

Little wonder Coveney is unsure what games are being played. Implicit in his reluctance to absolutely commit to talks starting next week was that what he has heard so far from the two main protagonists, the DUP and Sinn Féin, indicated that the omens are not good. What’s the point in holding talks if they are going nowhere?

But then again he also would also have been trying to figure whether this was part of the ritual initial skirmishing and posturing that happen around these talks. DUP politicians such as Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley jnr were suggesting that, such was the deadlock, the governments should call it a day and just allow Theresa May and Northern Secretary James Brokenshire to bring in direct rule from Westminster.

At the same time Danny Morrison, Sinn Féin’s former director of elections and a close friend of Gerry Adams, was saying he did not see Stormont “being put back together again”. Sinn Féin grassroots were fed up because the DUP wasn’t responding to the republican outreach to unionism, he said.

If those points of view did reflect the positions of the DUP and Sinn Féin, then Coveney was right to be concerned. The two governments needed to hear something more positive, more conciliatory.

The softening

That finally happened on Thursday night, when DUP leader Arlene Foster delivered a significant speech to her party executive in Belfast. Hitherto the thrust from the DUP and Sinn Féin was pretty hardline – hence Coveney’s anxieties – but Foster was considered and softer in her delivery.

She said unionists had “nothing to fear from the Irish language” and proposed the immediate return of the Executive based on a commitment that if the language issue was not dealt with in a specific period of time “then the Executive would cease to exist”. Implicit in that offer was that there will be Irish language legislation, which is something that upsets a fair portion of the DUP base.

Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill speaks to the media regarding Arlene Foster’s power-sharing plan. Photograph: Mark Marlow/Pacemaker
Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill speaks to the media regarding Arlene Foster’s power-sharing plan. Photograph: Mark Marlow/Pacemaker

From a DUP perspective, it may be wrapped up in legislation that incorporates Ulster Scots and some other cultural matters rather than free-standing, as Sinn Féin is demanding, but you might think that at the very least her offer could have been a basis for further negotiation.

Foster said there could be no “one-sided” deal on the Irish language and accused Sinn Féin of building a “barrier to the return of Stormont”. But otherwise the language was more tempered. There was talk of promoting diversity and a call for a “new vision and new commitment on identities”.

Coveney welcomed Foster’s speech and said it was “a genuine effort to show leadership and reach out towards compromise”.

That wasn’t Sinn Féin’s view. Its Northern leader, Michelle O’Neill, swiftly rejected the proposal to restore the Executive based on a time limit to deal with language. It was not a new proposal, she said, although the Ulster Unionist MLA Steve Aiken insisted the time-limit element of it was a new factor.

After all the talk and reaction, it remains unclear whether resumed talks have a chance of success. It leaves Coveney and Brokenshire in a quandary with a difficult question to answer: are Foster’s speech and O’Neill’s unhappy response enough to persuade the governments to initiate a new round of talks after about half a dozen deadlines were missed this year to reactivate the Assembly?

Last night, as behind-the-scenes contact continued, the two governments were trying to figure out the answer.

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