Strong nerve needed to get Stormont deal over the line

Greatest pressure is on Arlene Foster to keep her party members from being spooked

After a series of talks with leaders of Sinn Féin and the DUP at Stormont in Belfast, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and British prime minister Theresa May say they are hopeful of a deal to reinstate power-sharing within days. Video: Reuters

 

It’s a question of political nerve from now to the conclusion of the anticipated deal to restore the Northern Executive and Assembly.

Leo Varadkar and Theresa May arrived at Stormont at noon on Monday to provide encouragement, counselling and support for the Northern politicians, but to see this agreement across the line ultimately requires political leadership and courage.

And primarily from DUP leader Arlene Foster who, for the moment, is under the greatest pressure. How she copes in the days ahead will be pivotal to whether powersharing is back up and running towards the end of the month.

From what we know about the proposed Irish language legislation it involves portions of good old Northern Ireland fudge.

That legislation, we are told, involves three pieces of legislation addressing Irish, Ulster Scots and broader cultural matters. There is said to be an inter-connectedness between all three acts where the DUP could say it means one thing and Sinn Féin could say it means another.

But if either or both the DUP and Sinn Féin insist that they have got their way on the language then there yet could be problems.

An example of the pressure the DUP and Foster must confront was evident on BBC Radio Ulster’s Stephen Nolan programme right from kick-off on Monday morning. He played a number of recordings of Foster insisting there would be no Irish language act and of Sinn Féin’s former president Gerry Adams adamantly asserting there would.

The programme also featured the traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister and loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson arguing that Foster and the DUP were about to abandon their no surrender stance on the Irish language.

Foster’s mood hardly would have improved by the appearance of a Conradh na Gaeilge spokesman looking forward to an Irish language sign on the Shankill Road – notwithstanding that the name is derived from seanchill or old church.

Suspicion

That is the sort of commentary that can unnerve those unionists who have a visceral suspicion of, or antipathy to, the Irish language – and there are quite a lot of people who hold this view.

Separately Dr Niall Comer, president of Conradh na Gaeilge, issued a statement saying: “The Irish language is an integral part of this society and until that is recognised officially, and until the appropriate provisions are in place, provisions recognised internationally by experts, the efforts to secure an independent Irish language act will not cease.”

That could place some burden on Sinn Féin further down the line if gaeilgeoirí can protest that there has been some republican backsliding from commitments on the language.

The full detail on other key matters is yet to be released or concluded. But it seems that same-sex marriage would or should happen through a private member’s bill in the Assembly with the DUP, by a nod and a wink perhaps, committed not to institute a petition of concern to block such legislation.

One gay marriage lobbyist said this was an unsatisfactory “wing and a prayer” non-binding commitment but maybe it is the only way it can be done.

It is understood too that dealing with the past will involve proposals already in place such as an Historical Investigations Unit and truth recovery mechanisms.

And to try to avoid any sudden future collapses of Stormont, it is understood there is a proposal whereby in any situation where one of the lead parties might walk away that there would be a cooling-off period of some months before the institutions were suspended.

On Sunday and Monday several DUP sources correctly said the deal would not be done on Monday and it could take another few days before there is clarity.

What was clear at Stormont on Monday was that the immediate challenge is for Foster and the leadership to keep her Assembly members and MPs from being spooked into turning away from this largely completed prospective agreement.

The DUP held a party meeting at Stormont on Monday to brief members on the deal. Before that meeting some DUP politicians were muttering about not being kept up to date by the tight team of party negotiators who did the talking with the equally unforthcoming Sinn Féin negotiators.

It must be said that regardless of the pressures and the talk of DUP “Lundyism” on an Irish language act there was no sign of panic from the party’s Assembly members.

Foster in a news conference said the tone of the talks with Sinn Féin was “very good”. Not all her team was present but standing alongside her were DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds, Simon Hamilton and Edwin Poots and the former MP, Rev William McCrea.

But she will also be assailed by hardline unionists who want this chance to bring back powersharing to collapse.

Yet up to last night at least she had the appearance of a leader who has the nerve and confidence to take her party with her to finalise a deal later this week or possibly some time next week. It seems the only nagging concern remains the Irish language.

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