NEW TALKS – OLD GROUND – By Brian Rowan

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The new talks schedule was set out at Stormont on Friday.

May 7th will be the starting date for a negotiation sandwiched and squeezed between two elections.

By the end of May the governments will review progress.

There is also to be a British-Irish intergovernmental conference within 24 hours of the talks commencing, with part of the agenda political stability in Northern Ireland.

There hasn’t been much of that – certainly not in recent times.

The governments’ intention in this latest initiative is too stress urgency. A tight time frame – no room or mood for delay.

Yet, no absolute deadline was written into the Stormont stone. In this place deadlines are stretched like elastic. They are no more than a rough guide.

It is difficult to imagine in this third year of political standoff that the repair work can be completed in a few short weeks.

Indeed, there are those who have already made up their minds about Stormont; that it has had its chance.

The governments have not given up and are responding to the words and challenge of Father Martin Magill at the funeral of the murdered journalist Lyra McKee jut a few days ago.

Those biting and cutting words of the priest: “Why in God’s name does it take the death of a 29-year-old woman with her whole life in front of her to get us to this point?”

Magill said what many of us were thinking. On this website last weekend I wrote under the headline: IT’S TOO LATE WHEN SOMEONE IS DEAD.

Let’s see where these talks take us.

This is how one of those who will be sitting at that table, described this latest initiative just hours before it was announced: “Short, sharp we’re told, but that will be balls.

“We have to do something. So let’s do nothing.” 

The governments believe they are doing something – perhaps, in the here and now, providing Stormont with its last chance if there is such a thing in the politics of this place.

They are trying to use the moment, the anger, the sadness and the shock of recent days; the words and challenge of Martin Magill  to see what can be done. 

If nothing is achieved, then they have a decision to make.

For how much longer can they allow the political farce of Stormont to have a stage? 

DUP leader Arlene Foster repeated her preferred option on Friday – the immediate restoration of the Assembly and talks in parallel.

After how the DUP ended the last negotiation in February 2018, including the denial of the draft agreement, such an approach is a non-starter.

Sinn Fein Vice President Michelle O’Neill made clear on Friday that the rights issues must be settled before the Executive returns.

Think also not just of the upcoming elections but that there is not yet a settled position on Brexit and that the pages of the RHI Report have not yet been published for reading.

Is this really the moment for agreement on the political hill? 

By the end of May into the early summer, the governments will have a decision to make.

They may have to take charge of things – and clear the hurdles that others can’t or won’t jump.

These new talks are on old ground. There is nothing certain about Stormont’s future.

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About Author

Brian Rowan is a journalist, author and broadcaster. Four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Journalist-of-the-Year awards. He was BBC security editor in Belfast and now contributes regularly to the Belfast Telegraph and UTV. Rowan has reported on the major pre-ceasefire and then peace process events. He is the author of four books.

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