In ‘Godot’ nothing happens twice – in Stormont it’s over and over again

Are the Northern talks over? A nonsense rhyme answer from Adams is as clear as it gets

James Brokenshire  making a statement in Stormont on Wednesday. Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press

James Brokenshire making a statement in Stormont on Wednesday. Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press

 

Waiting for Godot is described as a play where nothing happens twice.

Waiting for a Breakthrough at Stormont is a pedestrian drama where nothing happens countless times. And that doesn’t make for good political theatre.

Sinn Féin’s Northern leader Michelle O’Neill acknowledged as much on Wednesday when she said, “Endless talks without conclusion are not sustainable”.

Yesterday morning it appeared we were at some sort of endgame.

Northern Secretary James Brokenshire said the DUP-Sinn Féin talks had failed and therefore he must begin introducing a budget for Northern Ireland.

Various Sinn Féin leaders had warned such action would represent the failure and end of “this phase” of negotiations.

But when O’Neill and Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams spoke to reporters in the early afternoon it wasn’t at all so clear. Asked would the talks continue, Adams – in apparent flippant mode, as occasionally is his way – replied, “Will they? Who knows? Who can tell? Is this heaven or is this hell?”

O’Neill, asserting herself more strongly than at previous press conferences where her party president was alongside her, was adamant that “the dialogue has to continue. We have to be engaged if we want to form an Executive together”.

In the end, Adams agreed with this analysis. But what happens next from Sinn Féin’s perspective wasn’t at all explicit at the press conference. Adams and O’Neill said Sinn Féin would “reflect” on Brokenshire’s statement and its implications.

One of the cynical interpretations of why Sinn Féin didn’t definitively walk away from the talks on Wednesday was that it wanted to avoid accusations that it was the party that wrecked any hope of powersharing being restored.

But yet when a senior Sinn Féin source was contacted on Wednesday evening, his understanding of events was that this phase of the negotiations had indeed ended in failure and is over. What might happen next would be a matter for Adams, O’Neill and other senior party negotiators who are to meet shortly.

Confusion

Whatever confusion there may have been at the press conference, the source referred to a post-press conference statement from O’Neill where she said, “Sinn Féin is disappointed that the last few weeks of negotiations have ended in failure”. This, he believed, was an emphatic statement that the current talks are indeed concluded.

It all prompted SDLP leader Colum Eastwood to taunt that “the myth that [Sinn Féin] are good and strong negotiators has been totally exposed” because the impending Westminster budget meant Sinn Féin was delivering direct rule.

Brokenshire – with some Jesuitical thinking – begged to differ. He argued that the budget would be based on the advice of Northern Ireland civil servants, be reflective of the previous Executive, and therefore could not be construed as direct rule even if it were enacted in Westminster rather than Stormont.

It illustrated just how far Brokenshire was prepared to stretch himself to avoid accepting or stating that after 10 years of unbroken devolved government and 10 months of deadlock, Northern Ireland was returning to British direct rule. It demonstrated that he is willing to give the DUP and Sinn Féin more time to finally bridge the gap between them, even if there is the danger of politics turning to farce.

Adams sort of dismissively harrumphed when it was queried whether the Irish language conundrum had been resolved. Both he and O’Neill had explained the deadlock as the DUP refusing to countenance a “rights-based” political agenda.

Rights issues

O’Neill was explicit that the rights issues included the Sinn Féin demand for an Irish language Act, same-sex marriage legislation, Troubles-related inquests and a bill of rights for Northern Ireland.

The counter from East Derry DUP MP Gregory Campbell was that Sinn Féin collapsed Stormont 10 months ago and now it was producing a “shopping list of preconditions before they would re-establish an Executive”.

That was a variation on the previous comment by former DUP Minister Simon Hamilton that Sinn Féin wasn’t looking for a deal but rather a “10-nil” victory over the DUP.

The main obstacle to a deal remains the Irish language. Indications are that if the Irish issue can be unlocked all the other problems would fall into place.

Two weeks ago there was a view – shared by the British and Irish governments – that some form of compromise was in the offing where Sinn Féin could argue it had its demand of a freestanding Irish language Act while the DUP could argue legislation would embrace wider issues of Ulster Scots and other cultural and identity issues.

In short that it would be legislation that could be different things to the DUP and Sinn Féin. It seems however that when it came to decision time, either one or both parties took fright.

And again at Parliament Buildings, Stormont on Monday there was a bit of a buzz about the place, a sense that a deal might yet be cut. But by Tuesday evening that guarded optimism had fallen very flat.

And that was the mood too on Wednesday night. Without agreement Northern Ireland appears to be creeping closer to direct rule regardless of Brokenshire’s interpretation of events.

But Dublin and London haven’t given up on the DUP and Sinn Féin finally finding an accommodation. As Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney indicated on Wednesday, surely the ingredients are there for “an honourable compromise which reflects the core principles of the [Belfast] Agreement – partnership, equality and mutual respect”.

But when – and if – that would happen is unclear. It could take into early next year before there is any certainty about whether the North is bound for full-scale direct rule or if Stormont is capable of resurrection.