NI talks breakdown: Where there’s a will, there’s a way

if Sinn Féin agree to continue working with Foster, then the DUP and British government must demonstrate flexibility on “legacy” and Irish language issues

 

However unpalatable and unacceptable all the alternatives are to an agreement restoring the Northern Ireland Executive, we have, in the words of Sinn Féin Northern leader Michelle O’Neill, “come to the end of the road”. Sinn Féin on Sunday pulled the plug on talks involving all the North’s main parties – their legal deadline was running yesterday anyway, and they appeared to be going nowhere.

The province has now re-entered the familiar territory of political limbo just days before the UK government triggers Article 50 and Brexit. Rightly many voters will be asking urgently “who will speak for Northern Ireland”?

Today’s crunch issues are small beer compared to bridges previously crossed

So much then for Bill Clinton’s injunction to politicians to finish Martin McGuinness’s work. And no amount of blame game or finger-pointing at either Sinn Féin or the Democratic Unionist Party will mend this sorry mess.

Sinn Féin’s leader at Stormont, Michelle O’Neill, announces that the talks process aimed at restoring devolution in Northern Ireland has ‘run its course’, in Belfast. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Sinn Féin’s leader at Stormont, Michelle O’Neill. "No amount of blame game or finger-pointing at either Sinn Féin or the Democratic Unionist Party will mend this sorry mess." Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

The reality is that an inexorable logic facing any party wanting to see the executive restored means that each has to step back a pace, and compromise – there are no issues here between them that cannot be resolved if the political will is there, nothing involving fundamental principle.

Indeed, as more than one politician has pointed out, today’s crunch issues are small beer compared to bridges previously crossed.

The limited range of alternatives now facing politicians are straightforward: another election, with almost certainly a broadly similar result and an identical impasse – calling one is a legal obligation on the Northern Secretary within a “reasonable time”; or the restoration for the medium to long term of direct rule from Westminster, and the effective neutering of the whole Northern political class and of local democracy, however imperfect; or finding some means, legislative or otherwise, of resuming dialogue. The latter is inevitable sooner or later, so why not, as Bertie Ahern put in on the BBC the other day, simply do it now?

Sinn Féin is making a big issue of the role, temporarily or otherwise, of Arlene Foster as First Minister – she has undoubtedly been badly contaminated by the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal.

If Sinn Féin is to agree to continue working with Foster, then the DUP and the British government must also demonstrate flexibility on the “legacy” and Irish language issues

But, having agreed to an inquiry, Sinn Féin logically has to accept that a final verdict on her responsibility, and on the ultimate political price she must pay for it, must await its findings. The demand that she stand aside now pending the findings is purely tactical, and, surely, negotiable.

Arlene Foster: The life story she presents to the electorate is of a grammar school girl and RUC man’s daughter struggling to lead a normal life through the Troubles. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
DUP leader Arlene Foster. "Nothing here is beyond the wit of the North’s politicians, if there is a will." Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Yet if Sinn Féin is to agree to continue working with Foster, then the DUP and the British government must now also demonstrate flexibility on the “legacy” and Irish language issues which are also part of the current deadlock. Nothing here is beyond the wit of the North’s politicians, if there is a will. The looming challenges facing the North of Brexit and a vulnerable economy make finding that will an imperative on all sides.

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