In recent weeks Theresa Villiers has issued several statements positively “pumping up” the Stormont talks. Last night she introduced a sudden caution, suggesting “the chances of clinching a final deal look slim”.
At no time during the last seven weeks has either a credible process, or any political momentum been introduced to these talks. It neither being a talks or negotiation process.
Inertia has been the hallmark throughout. That stems from the British and Irish governments’ detachment from the political process. The result has been negative mismanagement by the British and passivity from the Irish.
The absence of “process” has been substituted by the circulation of papers by NIO officials presuming points of consensus upon issues which are entirely based upon their own assertion, rather than inter-party agreement.
This piecemeal, tactical approach suggests the ground is being prepared for a predetermined British paper with Irish government sign-off.
The British have taken the lead as a facilitator, not a participant. The Irish government has accepted a junior, not co-equal role.
The litmus test for northern nationalism will be the Irish Government’s commitment to ensure that as agreed, the British Government delivers on parity of esteem, equality of treatment, and mutual respect, including Acht na Gaeilge; the development the all-Ireland agenda; and, adherence to the Haass recommendations. These issues are absolute. The Irish Government’s resolve to ensure delivery on them will be closely observed.
All this sits in the frame of elections. Speculation has intensified about a hung parliament in Britain after the general election. The UKIP surge, and potential eclipse of Labour in Scotland by the SNP play into that. In the 26 counties the current coalition is in serious trouble, and now deals with everything from water charges, child abuse, budgets, to the north, through the filter of electoral politics.
A comprehensive deal to resolve all outstanding and new issues relating to the peace and political processes will not be encouraged if that has the potential to further enhance Sinn Féin’s electoral rise and continued political realignment in the south.
The DUP’s annual conference gave the latest indication of its approach. That Party’s negotiation position from the beginning has been to get acceptance of the budget crisis, introduction of welfare cuts, an inquiry into the Parades Commission decision on the Orange march past Ardoyne…and, then a march, all as preconditions: and then moreover, reductions of MLAs and Executive departments.
All senior speakers spoke of their potential to be power brokers in a hung British parliament.
During his speech Gregory Campbell contemptuously rejected compromise, mutual respect and power sharing with Sinn Féin, on behalf of Party leadership. His comments were both incendiary and destabilising. They suggest that the leadership’s focus is more on having the balance of power in Westminster, and developing a “confidence and supply” arrangement with the next government.
The DUP’s preference would be to have the Conservatives back in power conditional upon meeting their demands. From their perspective that’s a plausible game plan given the continuous relationship building between the two parties, and particularly the “side bar” meetings and contact between senior Party figures about the DUP’s political, economic and parading preconditions, with key Conservative cabinet ministers, and NIO officials.
The elements in the mix of proposals, as Villiers and Charlie Flanagan make their progress reports, are increased austerity and reduced government in the north; avoidance of the all-Ireland agenda; dilution of Haass; and capitulation to the DUP/extremist unionist/Orange demand for an inquiry on Ardoyne.
A pre-Christmas report might be produced on a “take it or leave it” basis, and, or the talks stagger into the new-year so that disagreement, and potential collapse of the institutions allows for assembly and Westminster elections on the same day.
Villiers’ statement may be conditioning opinion in advance.
This much is clear; the potential for success in the Stormont talks is now competing with the political and electoral interdependency between the British Conservatives and DUP: and a failure, thus far, to fully assert the primacy of the Good Friday Agreement by, and electoral self-interest of, Irish Government parties.
The onus is on Pro-Agreement and democratic opinion across Ireland and internationally to exert maximum pressure and ensure a comprehensive, successful talks’ outcome.
By Delcan Kearney.