The Irish Times view on the Northern talks: a chance that must be seized

The first condition for success in any negotiation is a will on both sides to strike a deal – and the DUP and Sinn Féin want a deal

DUP leader Arlene Foster with Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill at the funeral service for murdered journalist Lyra McKee in April. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Reuters

DUP leader Arlene Foster with Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill at the funeral service for murdered journalist Lyra McKee in April. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Reuters

 

While public attention was focused on Donald Trump’s promotional exercise for his hotel in Co Clare and his rather perfunctory meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Shannon airport on Wednesday, discussions of greater significance for the future of the island were taking place amid considerably less fanfare in Belfast. Talks involving the five main parties in the North have intensified after the governments in Dublin and London concluded on Sunday that there were grounds to believe a deal to restore the Northern Executive and Assembly was within reach.

After several weeks of negotiations initiated in the wake of the killing of the young journalist Lyra McKee by the “New IRA” in Derry in April, Varadkar and British prime minister Theresa May gave their approval for the parties to press ahead in search of a substantive agreement to revive the institutions. The window for a deal is narrow, however, with wide agreement that the beginning of the marching season in early July acts as a natural deadline.

At first glance, conditions are not all that propitious. Brexit has made politics in Northern Ireland more polarised than at any time since the Belfast Agreement was signed in 1998, driving a wedge between the parties and reviving tensions over issues – the Border in particular – that the peace process had managed to defuse.

Relations between Sinn Féin and the DUP, already damaged by the cash-for-ash debacle and the collapse of the institutions, have been further strained by the Brexit turmoil, while the relationship between the two party leaders lacks the personal warmth that their predecessors developed. Add to the mix the constant distraction of an imploding government in London – a government represented in Belfast by a secretary of state who admits she lacked basic understanding of Northern politics on taking up her post.

But the first condition for success in any negotiation is a will on both sides to strike a deal. And make no mistake: the DUP and Sinn Féin want a deal. Neither party gains anything from the current stalemate. It makes them less relevant, less involved, less influential – denying them all the things politicians crave. And it annoys the people they are supposed to represent.

Sinn Féin and the DUP will claim to be happy with the results of the recent local and European elections, but the performance of the Alliance Party in particular will have underlined to them that a solid and growing share of the Northern electorate has moved beyond the tribal slogans of identity politics.

We know that the issues are not intractable because, in February last year, a restoration agreement was in place. That deal fell because the DUP balked at selling it to the party grassroots.

A similar failure this time would be unforgiveable.

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