STORMONT: READING INSIDE THE TALKS – By Brian Rowan

 

It is the end of week two of the talking; and, as you read inside this negotiation, so you see the structure of the process and its intention to quickly focus on the critical issues and to assess the potential for the restoration of devolved government.

Of the five working groups, one is more critical than the others. The one addressing rights, language and identity. It met for the first time in the Conference Room of Stormont House on May 10 and met again on Friday. 

Critical for this reason.

That almost two and a half years into this political standoff, it is difficult to imagine a new Executive without an Irish Language Act and certainty on the issue of marriage equality.

Protocols for this working group were quickly agreed.

Each of the parties was asked for a position paper stretching across the range of issues specific to its task. Since then, the group facilitator has responded with his paper – a summary or synopsis of the key issues identified by the parties to these talks.

Think of this one working group. In its in tray alone are the issues of same sex marriage, abortion law, Bill of Rights, language, identity, citizenship.  

Within the tight time frame allocated to these talks, how do you concentrate minds?

I am told, with questions on strategic objectives, trying to keep those to the essential few and asking  – what success would look like?

We know, there will be a Prime Minister/Taoiseach assessment at the end of May and, at the end of this month, the intention is to have the conclusions of the working groups on paper. 

They have a little over a fortnight to get to that point.

The challenge is to get something into those conclusions papers that will represent progress and ensure these talks still have a pulse.

Two weeks in, issues for discussion have been identified. Nothing more than that. Agreements – particularly within the allocated time – won’t easily be achieved.

The fight for an Irish Language Act created trenches within the last negotiation, and will be another battle this time round; one of many across the wide agenda of these talks.

We know how difficult all of this is going to be.

Earlier this week, a planned announcement on next steps in the legacy process was pulled by the Northern Ireland Office. There is talk in the background that the DUP may have had something to do with that.

Had it gone ahead Secretary of State Karen Bradley would have been detailing a process – including historical investigations – on the same day that Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt was speaking about legal protections for military veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mordaunt hopes those measures could offer a way forward here.

Two different positions within the same government and this is part of the problem with this negotiation; a government that more often than not appears not to know its backside from its elbow. 

Any statute of limitations, or the same thing differently described, has the potential to crash the entire legacy process here.

This is but one issue.

Across the agenda, and within a short period, there is a long way to travel in these talks. 

The assessment of one source is that it is still in its box ticking phase. 

There is another election next week and, only after that, will these talks get down into the serious business of trying to make a deal.

Inside the working groups, the last week of May is still being described as the last week in this phase of negotiations.

At that point, Theresa May and Leo Varadkar will have to decide for how much longer the process can be extended without it becoming yet another talking shop.

With the next Brexit battle looming, May has much more on her plate than this place. 

Here, a deal in a couple of weeks after more than two years of gridlock is not realistic.

When the detail is poured into these talks for decisions we will be back to the old battlefield. The legacy question is one such fight.

There is nothing certain about Stormont’s future.

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