The breakdown in Northern Ireland’s talks is an avoidable mess

by Kevin Meagher

As they say in Belfast, the dogs in the street could see there was no prospect of a deal to restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland. The ‘gaps’ between the parties that James Brokenshire, the beleaguered Northern Ireland secretary told the House of Commons on Monday could be bridged have proven to be rather larger than he – and he alone it seems – assumed.

The talks have failed for three reasons. First, the Democratic Unionists’ deal with the Conservatives means there is no leverage exerted by Downing Street or the Northern Ireland Office over the DUP, which is standing four-square against the implementation of an Irish language act – the central bone of contention between them and Sinn Fein – which they claim to oppose on grounds of cost, rather than base prejudice. (Honest).

Having lavished one billion pounds in new money on Northern Ireland just last week  – and guaranteed another £1.5 billion in underwriting the costs of measures like next year’s proposed corporation tax cut – a relatively small amount of funding on the Irish language is a drop in the Irish Sea. Moreover, it’s a perfectly sensible and entirely justifiable proposition given Wales has enjoyed similar legislation since 1993.

Second, the timing was awful. Expecting a deal a week out from the 12th July shows Brokenshire doesn’t even have an elementary grasp of the physics of Northern Ireland. There will be no compromise while loyalists are piling wooden crates 60 feet high with effigies of the Pope and Gerry Adams hanging from nooses. Next week is the high point of the ‘marching season’ where bonfires will be lit in commemoration of the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, where William III defeated King James I. (Nuance is lost of these occasions, as William was backed by the Pope).

So now is not the time to draw on the miniscule reserves of open-mindedness that representatives of Ulster unionism possess. Not when they interpret issues around culture as inherently zero-sum: ‘If the “other” benefits we must be losing out.’

Third, personal relationships at Stormont are locked in permafrost. The death of Martin McGuinness has robbed Northern Ireland of its most effective statesman and an anchor of the Good Friday Agreement settlement.

Even many unionists, hardly renowned for displays of affection towards their political opponents, would recognise his genuine evangelism for joint-working and sincere attempts at cultivating mutual respect between nationalists and unionists. Michelle O’Neill, McGuinness’s successor as Sinn Fein’s ‘leader in the North,’ is new to the role and not yet had the chance to prove her mettle.

Meanwhile, Arlene Foster endures. Not by merit, it has to be said. The DUP leader’s skin is so thick it must be coated with kevlar. She should have resigned at the start of the year when the full-scale of the scandal surrounding the Renewable Heat Incentive (a botched commercial heating subsidy she introduced that had no proper cost controls and has racked-up a £500m liability) was brought to light by one of her own ex-ministers.

Her abysmal handing of the situation combined with the DUP’s sour approach to joint-working, triggered McGuinness’s resignation as deputy First Minister and under the terms of their joint office, the collapse of the executive and fresh elections to the 90-seat assembly.

This deteriorating situation has hardly been helped by James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland Secretary, who has been unequal to the unfolding crisis. Wooden, unconvincing and behind the curve at every important moment, his time at Hillsborough Castle will surely draw to a close at the next reshuffle.

In particular, his failure to intervene before Christmas and urge Foster to step aside and allow the executive to investigate the RHI crisis resulted in it foundering with McGuinness’s resignation and the subsequent establishment of a more forensic judge-led inquiry that will, presumably, see Foster’s resignation at a later date.

Neither did he persuade Theresa May to make the journey to Stormont to chivvy along the negotiations, all the more necessary given republican suspicions (correct as it turns out) that her arrangement with the DUP would result in the British Government soft-pedalling when it came to challenging their new allies. Meanwhile, a changing of the guard in Dublin has seen a new Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, replace Enda Kenny and a new foreign minister, Simon Coveney, brought into the mix at the eleventh hour.

All considered, an avoidable mess.

Undoubtedly, Theresa May has been preoccupied contending with the small matter of political survival and teeing-up for the Brexit negotiations. She will find, however, that if equilibrium in Northern Ireland is not quickly restored it may generate an in-tray of problems all on its own.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Uncut and author of ‘A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about,’ published by Biteback

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8 Responses to “The breakdown in Northern Ireland’s talks is an avoidable mess”

  1. Anne says:

    Knowledgeable article Kevin. It highlights the desperation of TM to remain in power with a bribe to the dup – there is no consideration of how this affects the piece process in Northern Ireland.

  2. Tafia says:

    It’s just Sinn Fein trying to de-stabilise the situation in the hope of finally wiping out the SDLP and becoming the only nationalist voice at all levels.

    Thing to do is cease all pay and allowances for MLAs until they reach a deal. When they are laying of office staff and have no income they’ll soon come to the table.

  3. Hay says:

    Oh it were that simple!

    Just take this simple fact about the Irish language, a comparison with Wales, and the implication in an Irish context;

    1. The cost of the Irish language act in NI is indeed relatively small change

    2. In Wales, it is my understanding that to apply for a public sector role the applicant must be able to speak the language

    3. The Sinn Fein aim is not just the language act but also a commitment to move towards the Welsh situation

    4. The implications of the above are profound. It would be seen as yet another step in the path towards a United Ireland, and THAT is the reason for the DUP opposition.

    To make this a simple calculation based on cost is fundamentally wrong. The unionist community (and many nationalists too) will never accept that possibility, and any step that potentially facilitates a future decision towards a united Ireland will be resisted by whatever means necessary.

    I am not a lover of the political systems at either Stormont or Westminster, but please understand the Sinn Fein end game and what tactics they are employing.

  4. Barry Woods says:

    That Arlene is prepared to even talk to IRA/Sinn Fein given her personal experiences when young?
    her school bus was bombed, she was on it!
    Attempted murder of her father.. during her formative teenage years.

  5. John says:

    The NI parties would argue over the height of fenceposts if they had a chance. It’s absolutely pathetic that an entire regional assembly is stalled from forming due to childish issues like this, but if it wasn’t this one side or the other would invent something else to argue the toss about.

    Stick them under direct rule and sod them all with thier childish squabbles.

  6. Tafia says:

    @Anne – It highlights the desperation of TM to remain in power with a bribe to the dup

    And your opinion of Brown’s failed attempts to get them to join a coalition/C&S? And Miiband’s?

    You have a consistent opinion on this yes? Therefore ou thini exactly of the Brown and Miliband’s leadership.

  7. Gordon says:

    Kevin’s analysis is tainted by his own fervent bias towards Irish nationalism. If your starting point is that it’s a good idea to try to steamroller the pro-British majority in Northern Ireland out of the UK then don’t be surprised if your advice is not taken too seriously in Britain.

  8. Gaz says:

    Any thoughts on a Northern Ireland Labour party member on hunger strike to demand Labour allow candidates to stand for election in part of the United Kingdom

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