In this place of political checkmate, they were playing chess on Friday; the Ulster Schools’ finals sponsored by Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle.
It is two-plus years since the collapse of the institutions triggered by the resignation of the late Martin McGuinness in January 2017.
We are now watching the latest phase of talks, waiting for a step change when they resume on Monday.
This is the latest effort to make a deal – to somehow find agreement and a way out of that checkmate or stalemate; the standstill caused by a type of political cramp that has locked up everything and reduced our politics to pantomime.
STORMONT HOUSE – READING ROOMS
– The talking from Monday will be inside Stormont House – the work programme already agreed with governance issues set as the opening discussion. These stretch across accountability/transparency/programme for government and reform of the petition of concern.
Part of this work is trying to predict and prepare for the ‘word-pellets’ of the RHI Report later this year.
– Wednesday’s talks will be on sustainability – if the Assembly and Executive are restored, how to stop them from falling again.
– Two days – Tuesday and Thursday – have been allocated to rights, languages and identity; this a critical piece of work, including the issue and the battle for an Irish Language Act.
“BY FAR THE MOST INTRACTABLE ISSUE AT THIS STAGE”
The words above are an up-to-date assessment from one negotiator on these vexed issues of rights, languages and identity.
With July and the marching to the Orange fields and the Twelfth speeches just around the corner, another negotiator asked out loudly: “How do you discuss even theoretical legislation?”
There will be reading rooms to consider and to work on and to develop documents – this the latest attempt to soundproof these talks and prevent leaks.
We are told the talking in this coming week will be “all-day, every day” .
One negotiator spoke of “trying to move to talking to a text”.
This is when a negotiation becomes real; more focused on paper. Brackets indicate areas of dispute and a text moves through numerous iterations – identifying agreements and trying to narrow disagreements.
These talks are still waiting for that page to turn and this process to start.
Last Thursday, the Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald said:”An intensive, focused and time-limited negotiation must now begin.”
The discussions to this point, while constructive, were described as “scene setting”.
In conversations on the political hill, there is a reminder that these talks, at this time, are a governments’ initiative; an initiative that has raised expectations without any real sense thus far that it can deliver.
There is a belief that it is the Tanaiste Simon Coveney who is driving these talks; with the NIO distracted by a Secretary of State whose media message and performance have been a disaster. This has become more of a talking point in the course of these negotiations.
There is also a question.
What will the governments do, if this push in June fails to get this over the line before July?
Is there a Plan B – that is something more than just picking this up again after the summer?
Here, we are always looking for the right date on the wrong political calendar.
There is no perfect time in the deal-making of this place.
Will it be any easier in the autumn – after the Tory leadership race is won and lost, with the RHI Report ever closer, with Brexit to be decided and when it is no longer possible to delay the next steps and decisions in the legacy process?
WATCHING TALKS – WATCHING THE LEADERSHIP RACE
On this issue of the past, there is talk again that the analysis of the NIO legacy consultation could be published in this coming week, or the week after.
We have heard that talk before.
Planned options papers on themes and issues emerging from the consultation will not be published at this time, nor will legacy committees be established in Westminster and Belfast to discuss next steps.
The delay is to try to keep this issue out of that Tory leadership debate and out of the talks here.
So, all of this will have to wait for the next Prime Minister when it is hoped voices will be “less shrill” in the debate over legal protections for military veterans.
That argument for protections for soldiers is unlikely to become any less loud, but there will be choices for the next Prime Minister:
– to implement the Stormont House Agreement, including proposals for a new Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) and Independent Commission on Information Retrieval (ICIR);
– to leave the Past with the PSNI, or
– to introduce a statute of limitations across the board, including for republicans and loyalists.
There is no such thing as a soldier-only amnesty.
One negotiator told me that any agreement that fails to address the legacy question will be “built on sand”.
These talks have been slow, but the suggestion is they are now going to quicken.
In such a short space of time, can they solve the conundrum – that looking for the right date on the wrong calendar?
We are watching that Stormont space and waiting to hear what emerges from the reading rooms over the next few days.
If this negotiation fails in this calendar year, then there may not be a Stormont at the centenary of Northern Ireland