READ THE ROOM – NOT JUST THE WORDS – By Brian Rowan

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IT was one of those occasions. 

A republican set piece gathering in Belfast; a speech from Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald to a packed room – with the media allowed to record this before being asked to leave.

An important day also for reading the room; perhaps even more so than the words.

This was an update on the talks and a speech in which the Sinn Fein leader set out her thinking on Boris Johnson’s government and the republican position on a unity referendum.

The above segment relates to the Stormont Talks – meetings, but little progress and this because the “key issues have not been faced up to yet”.

As Mary Lou McDonald spoke, Michelle O’Neill was at the top table, with Conor Murphy and the MPs Elisha McCallion and Chris Hazzard.

Many of the party’s elected representatives were in the room, including Gerry Adams with other senior republicans who will be critical to any decision-making. Above Ted Howell – a central figure in negotiations spanning several decades – is seen reading his phone. Sinn Fein Chair Declan Kearney is also in the photograph.

Mary Lou McDonald’s speech could be read as throwing a bucket of cold water over some of the more upbeat or optimistic read-outs from the Talks. Last Friday Tanaiste Simon Coveney said he believed they were close to having a basis for agreement.

There was none of that optimism at this republican gathering.

So, why that sense from others that something had started to move in these talks; that they had found another gear?

From a non-republican source, I am told the following. That over four days Thursday and Friday July 18-19 and Monday and Tuesday July 22-23, DUP Chief Executive Timothy Johnston and Sinn Fein Chief Negotiator Conor Murphy were involved in intensive talks. 

Johnston was accompanied by Philip Weir and Murphy by Stephen McGlade. It was hoped by Wednesday July 24 that they would begin to get something onto paper – that process of drafting and iterations that focuses efforts on shaping agreements. Boris Johnson became Prime Minister on that date and, I’m told, the DUP did not turn up for talks. What had seemed to be a quickening pace in the negotiations had once more slowed.

So, where are we now?

No one has thrown in the towel, but from republicans you will hear that they will not be taken for granted and, from others, a commentary that the DUP needs to make its mind up in relation to the Stormont negotiations.

There is a view that the party is distracted by Westminster developments, and also a concern that the Stormont talks have now crashed into that Boris space and his plans for Brexit.

Simultaneously, the Brexit and the ‘New Ireland’ conversations are getting louder. 

On Tuesday Mary Lou McDonald told her audience: “Sinn Fein wants to share power with unionists in the North and we want to share power with unionists in a united Ireland.”

Is there a mood for a conversation on both those scenarios?

Can you get a deal on the political hill in this tug-of-war that is Brexit versus a new Ireland?

The longer they wait, the more Stormont will fade from the political frame.

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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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