AGREEMENT or ELECTION – TAKE YOUR PICK – By Brian Rowan

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With Stormont talks set to resume on Thursday, the heading above spells out the choice the parties face.

Do a deal before the January 13th deadline or face an Assembly Election.

Secretary of State Julian Smith and Tanaiste Simon Coveney are pushing the pace in this phase of talks.

A London government with a comfortable majority is no longer looking over its shoulder to this place for props or permission.

That message was loud and clear in the pre-Christmas news conference that Smith gave in the pouring rain at Stormont House.

In that same setting Coveney described two governments on the same page – with a text ready to be published as a basis for a deal.

With that Heads of Agreement document seemingly close to ready, it was the DUP that slowed the pace.  

Later this week, it will quicken again; these talks coming in the middle of a health crisis and with more strike action just around the corner.

This will add yet more pressure to a hot-house negotiation set against that January 13th deadline.

Smith insists that date is fixed; not stretchable as in so many other phases of negotiation since the collapse of the institutions almost three years ago.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood – one of the headline success stories of the recent General Election – says any stretching must be from the parties and in the frame of compromise.

“For almost three years we have been without a government to deal with hospital waiting lists, pay parity for healthcare workers, the funding crisis in our schools and the welfare cliff edge about to hit tens of thousands of families.

“It’s time to get back to work,” he said. 

Everyone has noticed Edwin Poots back at the heart of these negotiations for the DUP.

He was there in February 2018, the last time these talks got close to closing a deal. So, he knows the issues and must also know that, this time, this negotiation is viewed as a last chance for Stormont.

The centenary of Northern Ireland – another pressure point – is not far away.

If a deal is reached, then there will be selling to be done by both the DUP and Sinn Fein – particularly in relation to culture, language and identity. For the DUP, some also suggest on the issue of vetoes.

One negotiator told this website: “We need to get the Petition of Concern reformed; stopping it being abused – ensuring one party hasn’t the numbers to use it as a personal blocking mechanism.” 

On the prospects for a deal, that same source commented: “We have a tight timeline if we are going to achieve this by January 13th. The fundamental issue is trust.”

With the RHI report now expected in the opening months of the New Year, he spoke of the need for mechanisms on accountability, sustainability and responsibility “to ensure that government is not undermined”.

What will that text – that the governments say is near ready – say on these critical matters?

How convincing will it be?

The parties are waiting for the fine detail on this; but they also know that Smith has a big selling point; a financial package that will begin to treat and fix that health crisis.

The post-Christmas talks are starting a little earlier than expected; and the governments want this deal done and done quickly.

It is decision time with the DUP with most about which to think. 


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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 and contributed chapters to 'Reporting the Troubles' and 'Brexit and Northern Ireland: Bordering on Confusion'.

1 Comment

  1. Who knows what the DUP will do next – from what I can see we may as well spin Patrick Kielty’s ‘Big Rickety Wheel’. One thing is for sure, playing some version of ‘Super Prod’ always leaves the unionist with less they they might have had last time (whenever that was).

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