When you read inside the Stormont papers you come across this sentence:
“The significance attached to the forthcoming centenary of the establishment of Northern Ireland was highlighted by some parties, including the need to put in place a programme to support and facilitate the commemoration of this historic milestone.”
Then, two-plus years into this political standoff and standstill, you ask this question:
Will there be a Stormont – a functioning government – when we arrive at that moment?
These latest talks are the governments’ initiative. Remember, it is their assessment that there is worth in trying to push a final agreement through the narrow window of the next few weeks.
For now, others are humouring that narrative, suspending disbelief to test the analysis; and there is another group of others who are getting carried away and getting ahead of themselves.
Why are the governments trying to get this done now – with July not a long march away and with a serious piece of work to be done and not much time to do it?
Because if they wait to the autumn, then the “improbable circumstances” of now described by Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill in a Stormont news conference yesterday will become even more fraught.
Waiting does not not make the task any less difficult. Nor does wasting time.
Wasting time at a leaders’ meeting at Stormont House on Monday talking about leaks to this website.
In recent days, it was a document on rights, languages and identity and, back in February 2018, it was the draft agreement text that most believed had the building blocks to make another go of politics at that time.
The writing of yet more long-winded, entirely predictable papers in the days that are left in this negotiation won’t hide what needs to be done.
There is a piece of work around the stability and sustainability of the political institutions – how to ensure that they do not collapse within days if there is another fallout at the top of government.
This was addressed in that February 2018 draft agreement text, but there is a view that more work is required.
Then the question of how to respond to RHI – to ensure that never again is there government by those standards?
The question also of the petition of concern; that “key reform issue” now remitted to the leaders’ negotiation that began on Monday.
Then there are those difficult issues under that heading of rights, languages and identity. The sneering of ‘curry my yoghurt’ and ‘crocodiles’ will mean there will be no Executive without an Irish Language Act.
That won’t change whether the deal is done in the summer or the autumn; whether it is next week, next month or next year.
Nor will an Assembly be restored to allow for talks in parallel. Too much damage was done in the denial of that February ’18 draft agreement.
Some believe the recent disastrous Sinn Fein election results in the south will force their hand; bring about an early deal – an agreement done in panic.
It is an analysis that forgets that within the republican community the loudest cheer and the biggest vote in the north came when they brought the institutions down.
Sinn Fein cannot afford the wrong deal.
“The core vote is steady and if they are steady, then we should be steady,” one republican commented.
Parking this negotiation now and waiting for the autumn brings Brexit, RHI, Legacy and whatever is next at Westminster into play.
Will it be easier then?
No – is the answer to that question.
In a Stormont corridor on Monday, I was asked why, with so much uncertainty, there would be a deal now?
Perhaps the thinking of the governments is that for all that uncertainty, things are only going to become more turbulent and chaotic; that, for all the difficulties of now, this is the calm before the next storm.
I guess they also think of more difficult issues – such as arms decommissioning and the devolution of policing and justice – that were the challenges of past negotiations and that they got through.
Today’s issues are a much lower bar to clear, but what if some can’t make that jump?
Then, by the autumn other things will have to be considered:
– direct rule?
– some British/Irish approach to decision making?
– an election to try to shake things up?
Stormont hasn’t got many more chances left and, if the governments stick to this June deadline, then we won’t have long to wait to see if there is the political will and leadership to get this done.
A deal is not impossible – nor is it inevitable.