A Fart in Stormont’s Space Suit – By Brian Rowan

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From Tuesday’s Talks invite


I asked a republican how the Theresa Villier’s speech to the British/Irish Association in Cambridge was playing out.

The reply didn’t take long.

“Like a fart in a space suit,” was the response and then came the explanation.

Since the Stormont House Agreement last December, an implementation group has been trying to get things done, but has been stuck in the jam of nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.

The speech by the Secretary of State moved those political goalposts – indeed it has created something of a new pitch.

It is not just the pre-talks warning that as a “last resort” the government would be prepared to legislate at Westminster for welfare reform in Northern Ireland, there was more.

The government will release the funding to allow the voluntary exit scheme for public sector workers to come into operation this month.

Things are being signalled and agreed, long before everything is agreed.

The mechanisms for addressing the past are not yet over the political line.

On Saturday, the Robinson and McGuinness responses to the Villiers speech were very different – “a potential game changer” versus “a huge mistake”.

McGuinness was talking specifically about the position outlined by the Secretary of State on welfare reform.

So, the meaning of devolution and who is really in charge has been stirred into the crisis mix along with welfare and budgets and IRA structure and activity.

We still don’t know what the government is going to do on the latter to clear the way for the DUP’s entry into Tuesday’s planned talks.

Assembly adjournment or suspension have been part of the political wordplay in recent days with the DUP warning of “unilateral action” if the two options are rejected.

“It is equally essential that the government respond to our proposals on the issue of paramilitary activity,” Peter Robinson said in a  statement on Saturday.

In Cambridge the Sinn Fein Chair Declan Kearney described “an escalating political crisis” but said it had nothing to do “with the fiction of an existing IRA”.

He also tweeted on the Villiers speech saying it included a “threat” to impose welfare cuts on the north.

Kearney’s line on an IRA structure, or lack of one, repeats what Gerry Adams has been saying since Chief Constable George Hamilton linked current members of the IRA to the Kevin McGuigan murder in the Short Strand and said a “senior infrastructure” remains in place.

Hamilton has not stepped back from that assessment.

The senior infrastructure has not been labelled, but is understood to mean an IRA leadership at “brigade level and up”.

Hamilton has made clear that leadership does not pose a national security threat, that it is now managing peace not directing war, but the suggestion of its very existence has played into a crisis that already existed.

That structure now sits besides the suggestion that current IRA members were involved in the McGuigan murder – a reprisal for the killing of one-time senior IRA figure Jock Davison.

It is why there is also talk on the possibility of bringing back a monitoring body to report on the IRA and loyalist organisations.

These are steps back – not forward.

The crisis deepens – and the challenge still is to create a stage for negotiations and how to avoid Stormont’s collapse.

On welfare and many other issues, this could be the last roll of the dice.

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About Author

Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist/author. A former BBC correspondent in Belfast, four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Press and Broadcast Awards. He is the author of several books on the peace process. His latest book (published by Merrion Press) POLITICAL PURGATORY – the battle to save Stormont and the play for a New Ireland is now available at www.merrionpress.ie

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