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.