STORMONT TALKS: DECISION TIME – By Brian Rowan

 

When the party leaders and governments meet in roundtable session on Monday, it will be close to decision time; what to do with this negotiation in the here and now?

They are now talking to a consolidated document; a summary or compilation of facilitators’ papers from the various working strands of these talks.

The trenches and the battleground are the same – the vexed issues of rights, language and identity and, if restored, the future sustainability of the political institutions.

In both of these areas, there has been a retreat from the draft agreement text that, in February 2018, came close to ending the Stormont standoff.

Firstly, take the issue of sustainability.

In February ’18, the plan was for the UK Government to legislate to extend the time for the election of a First Minister and deputy First Minister after an Assembly Election or in the event of a resignation at the top of the Executive. This longer time period would have stretched to 24 weeks.

Remember, after the resignation of the late Martin McGuinness in January 2017, the institutions collapsed within a fortnight.

Now, read inside these latest talks – this excerpt from one of the discussion papers obtained by this website.

The one party insisting on no change to current arrangements is Sinn Fein; this, I am told by a unionist source, was restated as recently as Thursday in a talks meeting inside Stormont House.

So, why this shift from the February 2018 text?

You find the answer within that other talks frame of rights, language and identity.

More than a year ago, Sinn Fein believed it had achieved a stand-alone Irish Language Act as part of a wider package set out in the February 2018 draft agreement under the heading: RESPECTING LANGUAGES AND CULTURE. (That draft agreement was obtained by my colleague Eamonn Mallie and is published elsewhere on this website)

Inside these latest talks, there is no suggestion of a stand-alone Act. Indeed, within the past fortnight, a DUP source told me there was no point wasting time: “It’s not going to happen.”

So, one cancels out the other. No Irish Language Act means no movement on the question of the sustainability of the political institutions. To unlock one, you have to unlock both. 

Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. So, the documents we read inside these talks are ‘non-papers’; there for discussion and not to be viewed as an agreement text.

Part of that discussion includes the possibility of a ‘Declaration on Identity Rights and Freedom of Cultural Expression’ containing a number of principles.

As part of this proposal a new directorate would be established within the Executive Office. 

Again, this is a discussion point – not an agreement; and, from a number of sources, I have heard both concern and opposition.

These are five party talks, but crucial to any deal will be discussions between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

That Monday roundtable meeting of party leaders and governments at Stormont will be the next stock-taking.

Somewhere between two thoughts you find the state of play within the negotiation.

“Running out the clock” is the assessment of one negotiator – meaning at some point soon and, perhaps within the next week, a decision will have to be taken on how to pause these talks and for how long.

Another thought is along the lines of “inching forward is better than going backwards”.

One source described a process going in circles – reading papers, making amendments and then seeing the same papers and having to make the same amendments.

The nervousness of July will make it more difficult for some within these talks.

What is the governments’ message? That waiting, pausing, delaying won’t make this any easier if there is a break and then a resumption of the negotiation.

RHI, Brexit, Legacy and a new Tory leader will all be factors come the Autumn.

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