ARE THE STORMONT STATUES MOVING? – By Brian Rowan

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In every political negotiation there are moments of chatter, when talk and messages come from the inside out.

The challenge is trying to decode the above.

So, what is the latest bavardage about the Stormont Talks?

In the chatter, there is the suggestion of more detailed negotiations in recent days involving the DUP and Sinn Fein.

POLITICAL WILL AND CREATIVITY 

There is also the repeat line that with political will and creativity there is a deal that could be done (the emphasis on could not will); and, on timing, a comment from one source that now is the moment “to get off the pot”.

Inside those word puzzles, has anything changed? After two and a half years of standstill, are the Stormont statues moving? 

At teatime on Wednesday, a colleague rang me to ask was I hearing anything about a deal. No one has told me the talks are at that point. If they were, we would be hearing of the type of preparatory ‘family’ meetings and briefings for which republicans are known. There is no such talk. 

Last Thursday, a planned or possible roundtable meeting was postponed. This would have brought the SDLP, Ulster Unionists and Alliance back into some stock-taking conversation with the governments and the ‘big two’ parties. 

Instead, yet more space was left for the DUP and Sinn Fein to continue their discussions.

READING TEA LEAVES 

This is when some started to read the Stormont tea leaves- looking for runes.

A line emerged that Timothy Johnston (DUP Chief Executive) and Conor Murphy (Sinn Fein Chief Negotiator) were in detailed negotiations. 

This line began its life inside a unionist party briefing and worked its way out. 

When you study tea leaves, you can under-read and over-read.

Johnston and Murphy sit inside much wider negotiating teams, which will decide the destiny of these talks. If there is not firstly a two-party agreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein, then this negotiation will not arrive at a five-party deal. The other parties are still waiting to be brought back in.

The two governments have been trying to quicken the step of this negotiation, but the envisaged tight deadline has been stretched and stretched again; stretched so much it has now crashed into Boris’s space.

Will Johnson as Prime Minister, that cabinet he has chosen and Julian Smith as Secretary of State make the business of deal-making at Stormont any easier?

DUP leader Arlene Foster tweeted a thought or two on Wednesday, while, in a statement, Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald said: “The restoration of the institutions requires a fundamental change in the approach of the British Government.”

Can we really expect that from Johnson and Smith in a Westminster numbers game in which they will still rely on the DUP?

STRATEGIC, THOUGHT-OUT VOTING 

Johnson and his cabinet are on a Brexit path that a clear majority here oppose. The careful, strategically thought-out voting in the recent European election, in which two remain candidates – Martina Anderson and Naomi Long – won seats, confirmed the referendum position of 2016.

The DUP does not speak for Northern Ireland on Brexit. 

If Boris Johnson gets his way  – which is by no means certain – would restored institutions at Stormont survive?

The reason the governments were trying to push the pace of these talks was in the knowledge that with each passing week on the political calendar this negotiation was going to become more difficult.

Rights, language and identity issues alongside the future sustainability of any restored institutions are matters that have not yet been resolved. Legacy and  RHI  are other outstanding and complicating issues and, given the fragile nature of Westminster politics, you can add to the mix the possibility of a General Election 

We’ll keep watching those Stormont statues, knowing that a deal will require some complicated somersault in a place of politics not known for its gymnastics.

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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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