Time to strike a deal in Northern Ireland talks
What divides the DUP and Sinn Féin appears more symbolic than real
It’s time for the two big parties in Northern Ireland to show they are serious about politics by striking a deal that will enable the power-sharing institutions to be restored. Failure to do so will be a sad reflection on the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin and will call into question their capacity to serve their communities in any meaningful way.
Northern Secretary James Brokenshire has given them yet another ‘last chance’ to reach a compromise by early next week. But he will be hard put to find an excuse to extend the latest deadline if the two parties fluff this opportunity.
On the positive side, when the two sides again failed to meet the deadline last Thursday both Brokenshire and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said they were encouraged that both the DUP and Sinn Féin were engaging intensively and that the prize of a deal remained achievable. The Northern Secretary is reflecting on his options this weekend and will make a statement in the House of Commons on Monday about what steps he intends to take next.
Both governments are hoping that by Monday Sinn Féin and the DUP will be prepared to signal that an agreement is finally possible. If that doesn’t happen Brokenshire will be faced with a decision about whether to find some mechanism to extend the period for negotiations over the summer and into the autumn, or to throw in the towel and opt either for new Assembly elections or formally hand over the running of Northern Ireland to direct rule by British ministers.
It would be truly ironic if the DUP, having so skilfully negotiated a £1 billion package for their support for Theresa May’s Conservative government, were to hand over the distribution of the largesse to ministers based in London. The DUP and Sinn Féin have shown themselves to be tough and skilful negotiators over the years but at this stage it appears they have become obsessed with negotiations as an end in themselves.
What divides the two parties appears more symbolic than real. Sinn Féin is insisting on a free-standing Irish Language Act while the DUP wants to tag on other elements, including the status of Ulster Scots.
The approach of the two parties to this issue is clearly about more than language. It is about each side trying to put one over on the other. It is not too much to hope even at this late stage that the vastly experienced negotiators from the DUP and Sinn Féin can find some form of compromise to break the political deadlock given how disproportionate the consequences of failure to agree are likely to be.
The two sides have been given a last chance to reach an agreement based on mutual respect rather than oneupmanship. In their own best interests and that of the communities they represent, they should take it.