North’s political heavyweights have been sent a firm message on Stormont
The electorate has told DUP and Sinn Féin: it is time to deal with day-to-day issues
‘On Thursday the public told the DUP and Sinn Féin to get on with it. They now have a chance to do just that.’ File photograph: Paul Faith/PA
It must be difficult after such a long and bruising election campaign, particularly for the like of DUP leader Arlene Foster, for politicians to feel compelled to return to the fray so quickly.
But exhausted as they must be all five main parties have pledged to turn up for today’s talks aimed at restoring powersharing. And the public have told them clearly what they want.
The parties will join Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Julian Smith in seeking to resolve difficulties that almost three years on are still blocking Stormont’s return.
So, do Smith and Coveney have any chance of success?
“We’re listening,” said Foster at the weekend.
The chastened DUP has much to heed. Its most experienced politician, and the author of its calamitous Brexit policy, Nigel Dodds, lost his seat in North Belfast while Emma Little Pengelly was defeated in South Belfast.
Dodds now must decide on his future. He could be co-opted to Upper Bann as an MLA, but that may be Little Pengelly’s destiny, or he could go to the House of Lords.
Questions also remain over Foster’s future as DUP leader. There have been no ostensible challenges so far, but it must be an issue for some senior figures.
In a statement Foster made clear she is still up for the joust: “We will be attending the talks on Monday. We will not be found wanting.”
That was positive but otherwise much of her short statement was an attack on Sinn Féin and how it had “barred everyone from government”.
That probably is fair enough in terms of a holding statement, but if it is more than that then ominously it could indicate that the DUP is not yet quite aware of the new political reality.
Taking North Belfast was a big success for Sinn Féin, not only electing John Finucane and ousting Dodds but putting the issue of a Border poll higher up the debating agenda. But equally its vote was down by 6.7 per cent and its politicians and election campaigners heard the message on the doorstep just as loudly as the DUP – the people want Stormont back to tackle life-and-death and bread-and-butter matters.
Is restoring powersharing difficult?
Mark Carruthers, presenter of BBC Northern Ireland’s Sunday Politics programme, yesterday put it to Sinn Féin’s Alex Maskey that despite the success of North Belfast, the party was “at sixes and sevens” after the election.
“We are not at sixes and sevens, we are seven, we have seven MPs,” replied Maskey, referring to the fact that even if the vote was down Sinn Féin still had seven abstentionist MPs.
That was a quick-witted rejoinder, but the party also knows, as must the DUP, that if lost votes are to be regained from the surging centre ground then Stormont is the place to be.
What the politicians have to do to restore powersharing isn’t really difficult. It requires some form of an Irish language Act, the absence of which still appears to be the key issue. That Act could be wrapped up in some form of all-embracing cultural legislation that would allow Foster and her colleagues save face, though it would also need to be sold by the DUP.
On Thursday the public told the DUP and Sinn Féin to get on with it. They now have a chance to do just that.