The on-mic/on-the-record commentary was bad enough – but what was whispered on the sidelines of Thursday’s Stormont talks was all the more telling.
“Shit show” was one summary. “Complete bollocks” another. “Bloody awful” yet another two word put down of this all-party meeting with Secretary of State Karen Bradley.
When you think things are as bad as they can be on the political hill, they just get worse.
“The tone of it just stank,” one source told me. “I can’t emphasise enough how bad the atmosphere was.”
The Secretary of State had just 45 minutes for the meeting – scheduled against a flight time she had to make.
“It was a car crash,” another of those present in the room told me.
Karen Bradley was there with Sir Jonathan Stephens – Permanent Secretary at the Northern Ireland Office.
The parties were represented by Christopher Stalford and Peter Weir (DUP), John O’Dowd and Mairtin O Muilleoir (Sinn Fein), Colum Eastwood and Nichola Mallon (SDLP), Robin Swann and Steve Aiken (Ulster Unionist Party) and Naomi Long and Stephen Farry (Alliance).
The meeting opened with a sharp exchange between O’Dowd and Stalford on an Irish Language Act and, so, the tone was set.
“It [the meeting] was disastrous from beginning to end,” one source commented. “It was completely flawed from conception to execution.”
In this deepening crisis, the Secretary of State is being seen more and more as the problem. The Northern Ireland Office has no political strategy.
The parties were given a paper: Proposals to restore political engagement in Northern Ireland, which thinks out on external facilitation and possible exploratory dialogue trying to build consensus to enable a talks process early in the New Year.
On external facilitation, it reads: “In particular there may be merit in an initial limited role aimed at working with the parties to develop suggestions on the basis of consensus for a process of renewed dialogue and talks to re-establish the Executive.”
The post-meeting Sinn Fein news conference set the scene. A couple of sentences spoken by John O’Dowd indicating no change and no plan. It was short and very pointed and then he and Mairtin O Mulleoir left without taking questions.
It was clearly intended to make the point that there was nothing to talk about.
Next to the microphone was Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann to describe a meeting that in his opinion was “ill advised”.
“Sinn Fein’s belligerent tone and attitude did not help the situation, nor does it bode well for the future,” he said.
I asked Swann did he believe there would be a functioning Stormont government at the centenary of Northern Ireland?
“Yes,” he said, but another Stormont source replied: “It’s doubtful.”
This is the deepening crisis – that after almost two years without government, there is not yet a viable, agreed talks plan.
Karen Bradley and the Northern Ireland Office are hostages to the Tory/DUP arrangement in London.
One observer spoke of the “laser-like focus” being on Brexit and trying to keep the DUP on board – not on the restoration of the Executive.
After Thursday’s meeting, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said he should have stayed in Derry, and described an embarrassing day for the Secretary of State and a bad day for politics.
Alliance leader Naomi Long believes Stormont is further away from a deal than in February when a draft agreement unravelled and negotiations collapsed.
What was most worrying about this day was that talk of “shit show” and “complete bollocks”. The politics of this place is now so “broken” that it has moved beyond pantomime and farce.
Will there be a government at the centenary of Northern Ireland?
After this latest play, it is a serious question.