Northern Ireland: parties must strike a deal

Overwhelming imperative is for an urgent resolution to the impasse

 

Eight months after the collapse of the Northern Executive, the prospect of an immediate deal that would resolve the stand-off between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) appears remote. In the middle of the Brexit negotiations, where issues of vital long-term significance for the island are being discussed, a failure of leadership by the key parties has left the North without a voice when it needs one most. Meanwhile, direct rule from Westminster looms in the near distance.

All of this should concentrate minds as talks take place in Belfast to establish whether there is a basis for meaningful negotiations on a restoration of the Executive. The chief point of tension remains DUP opposition to the Sinn Féin demand for a standalone Irish language Act. Neither side is entirely blameless on this – Sinn Féin agreed to a fudged provision on a language Act in the 2006 St Andrews Agreement, while the DUP has been unnecessarily hostile to a proposal that poses no threat to unionist identity. Indeed, the DUP appears early on to have misread Sinn Féin’s position on the language Act as pure political bargaining, when in fact it has been driven by genuine community pressure against a background of increasing nationalist disenchantment with powersharing.

Seen in the context of decades of historic reconciliation, this impasse should be relatively simple to unlock. A unionist concession on an Irish language Act could be met with compromises elsewhere. The problem is that the language issue also represents a much deeper grievance among nationalists and republicans: a sense that, under DUP leader Arlene Foster, the principles of equality and mutual respect underpinning powersharing have slowly evaporated. Foster’s wariness of Sinn Féin is understandable, but she showed far too little interest in assuming the role of cross-community figurehead the office of first minister requires.

Foster deserves credit, however, for acknowledging in recent days that the Irish language poses no threat to unionism, and for her initiative in recent days to kick-start the talks. She called for the Executive to be restored based on a commitment that the language issue would be addressed within a specific period of time. Were it not resolved in that time frame, she said, Stormont would collapse. Sinn Féin was too quick to reject an idea that at least should have provided the basis for serious talks. Indeed, Sinn Féin now risks backing itself into a corner at a time when the DUP, thanks to its deal with the Conservative Party, knows it can retain relevance and influence outside Stormont. While both sides feel they have their own political reasons to hold off on striking a deal, the overwhelming broader imperative, in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, is for an urgent resolution to the impasse.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.