Why is the Northern Assembly outsourcing its burning issues to itself?

Opinion: North talks include parades, the past, flags, welfare reform and the election of a new Assembly speaker

If the latest round of Northern talks were an animal, it would be a dead duck.

The new negotiations, set to get under way at Stormont today, were convened by Secretary of State Theresa Villiers following a call by First Minister Peter Robinson on September 9th for discussions in “a St Andrews 2 setting” to tackle issues that the Assembly was showing no sign of being able to resolve.

Mr Robinson will not attend today's gathering on account of having "a very full diary as First Minister on Thursday" and believing that the opening session will amount to no more than "a circus act".

The local participants will be the DUP, Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Ulster Unionists and Alliance, the parties that hold all the Executive positions and 102 of 108 Assembly seats. The British government will be present in the shape of Ms Villiers, who intends to chair most of the sessions. Sinn Féin and the SDLP want and the DUP and Ulster Unionists appear to have accepted an unspecified role for the Dublin Government. The nationalists also want the Obama administration involved, although it seems unlikely that the Stormont hiatus ranks high in White House priorities right now.


The topics on the table include parades, the past, flags, welfare reform/public spending and the election of a new Assembly speaker. That is, delegations representing virtually all of the Assembly will convene to discuss about 80 per cent of the matters that the Assembly exists to discuss, including all the issues most urgently in need of discussion.

This may be the first occasion anywhere of an institution outsourcing the bulk of its business to itself.

Parades may prove particularly problematic. On Monday, Ms Villiers met the Unionist Forum to set out plans for establishing a panel including "academics and other community figures" to look into the impasse over the Parades Commission's refusal in July to allow Ligoniel Orange Lodge to return from the Field on the Twelfth by a route taking them past the Ardoyne shops.

The forum, established to orchestrate a “graduated response” to the commission decision, comprises the DUP, Ulster Unionists, the Orange Order, Traditional Unionist Voice, the Progressive Unionist Party, associated with the UVF, and the Ulster Political Research Group (UPRG), associated with the UDA.

‘Fringe elements’

Mainstream unionists encouraged the involvement of the PUP and the UPRG in an effort to ensure that “fringe elements” could be kept in check.

The centrality of the Ardoyne march in the mind of some forum members was clear in party leader Billy Hutchinson’s speech to the PUP annual conference last weekend. The “north Belfast situation” was “illustrative of this country’s major problems and integral to overcoming them . . . The plight of the Ligoniel bands and brethren remains at the very core of the political process”.

No deal on the march – no deal.

Ms Villiers has set a deadline of the end of January for the panel to publish a report that will “reflect on its work and provide an invaluable source of evidence for future efforts to reach agreement in this area”.

Meanwhile, she anticipates the St Andrews 2 talks on parades etc reaching a conclusion by the end of December. She will take a “stock take” on progress at the end of November.

Dealing with the past will presumably require telling the truth about the past, which no group involved in the conflict has any intention of doing; chairwoman Villiers’ government being particular adamant on this score. The unionists also want the talks to deal with incidents of alleged collusion by the Republic’s government with the Provisional IRA.

Welfare reform and public spending is on the agenda because Ms Villiers's cabinet colleague, chancellor George Osborne, has threatened to "fine" the Executive tens and then hundreds of millions of pounds if the UK treasury's welfare measures are not implemented. The DUP is willing but Sinn Féin refuses, despite SF ministers having already delivered many of the cuts as they apply to their departments.

The election of a new speaker became critically contentious on Monday when the DUP reneged on an agreement made in 2011 that William Hay would be succeeded by a Sinn Féin nominee. Mr Robinson says that Sinn Féin started it by reneging on a deal between himself and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness accepting welfare reform. In the Assembly last week, Mr McGuinness sternly denied having made any such deal.

The main reason the talks are bound to end in ridicule and failure has to do with the 1998 Belfast Agreement, which consolidated the sectarian division while handing the main Orange and main Green party a veto each on any issue they chose, making certain that the most strident champion of each community would come to the fore to butt heads with their equivalents across the chamber.

The duck heralds the chickens coming home to roost.