Rebuilding Politics – “we need another season” – By Brian Rowan 

 

March 20th 2017: At Stormont, the brief lunchtime conversation a week or so ago switched between politics and football.

It happened in the canteen, where I was sitting with Ken Reid – the UTV Political Editor – when we were joined by a senior DUP politician.

The conversation flitted between the current form of a Premiership side and the form inside the talks.

I remember the phrase being used: “We need another season” – a thought that could be applied both to the soccer team under discussion and the faltering and stumbling Stormont institutions.

In the football plays of the Premiership, the referees are often under the spotlight. So, too at Stormont.

With extra time or even an extra season, can politics be fixed with Secretary of State James Brokenshire in the chair?

It is a recurring talking point in the studios and on the pages of political punditry.

“I don’t see any reason why Brokenshire should not be the chair,” Ulster Unionist chief negotiator Tom Elliott told this website.

“Whoever is chair, someone will have a problem,” he said.

On Monday, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood spoke of the need for proper talks with an independent chair.

By then, he knew these negotiations were heading towards extra time.

 

 

The previous day, Sinn Fein’s leader in the north Michelle O’Neill had stepped into the press area at Stormont Castle to deliver the news that her party would not be supporting a nomination for Speaker and would not be nominating for Executive Office.

With the Monday March 27 deadline of 4pmapproaching – there was no agreement.

In the days since, there has been little sense of urgency even after Brokenshire declared “a short few weeks” to find agreement.

This was the beginning of extra time in the talks with the possibility that “another season” may still be needed.

“It is astounding and deeply frustrating that the pace of negotiations is so slow when the time available is so limited,” Nichola Mallon of the SDLP said on Thursday.

The talks so far have been a stage for another battle on unresolved issues, including legacy and an Irish Language Act.

Gerry Adams revealed and dismissed a DUP proposal to introduce “a so-called Culture Act” – to encompass the Irish Language, Ulster Scots and a British Armed Forces Covenant.

The Sinn Fein and SDLP position is for a self-standing Acht na Gaeilge – delivery of which would be viewed in terms of a “symbol of respect”.

That battle has not been won.

A few days ago, DUP MP Nigel Dodds said his party would be “proportionate” in response to demands from Sinn Fein.

The issues of Ulster Scots and the Armed Forces Covenant are part of that approach. Marching – contested parades – could become a part of these talks.

Another unionist MP – Tom Elliott – has raised the definition of a victim.

“There needs to be a structure in the process,” Elliott told the eamonnmallie.com website.

“We need high level round-table meetings to discuss particular issues,” he continued.

Those issues stretch across a wide frame – management of the Executive, culture, Brexit and legacy.

 

 

The spring flowers have brightened the Stormont picture, but there is no spring in the political step.

A decade since the start of the Eames/Bradley process, the issues of the past and how they are addressed are far from agreed.

Funding has not been released for inquests and the national security terms that would apply to the reports of any new Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) and Independent Commission for Information Retrieval (ICIR) are part of another battle within these talks.

Brokenshire has control of much of the legacy process – funding, legislation and setting terms for some type of public engagement.

He is a player – not a referee.

Writing elsewhere on this website, Green Party MLA Clare Bailey asks is it time “to separate our political process from a legacy process” – and also makes the argument for an international dimension.

Earlier this week, Naomi Long spoke of the “dire consequences” that would accompany failure to achieve an agreement on the issues that have the politics of this place in yet another crisis.

The Alliance leader also said another election would not resolve the issues.

A short few weeks might be seen as extra time, but it is not enough time.

“Another season” might well be needed to try achieve a lasting agreement – an agreement that also recognises the changing arithmetic within both the assembly and these negotiations.

That last election ended the unionist majority at Stormont – and opened talks that are about implementation and delivery , not re-negotiation.

 

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