“IF IT WALKS LIKE A DUCK” – By Brian Rowan

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Step away from the set-piece, arranged party news conferences in the Great Hall of Parliament Buildings and listen to the conversations inside and outside Stormont.

There is a different mood about these talks: “This is the last chance – not the best chance,” one negotiator commented after a long day on the political hill.

“I think the deal is there,” he continued. “I don’t think the outstanding issues will stop a deal.”

This is his reading from inside the talks – watching and listening to the parties and governments.

Then he asks a number of questions.

Can you get all five parties to enter a new Executive?

Will external forces unpick it [any deal that might be achieved]?

That second question is a reminder of the ghosts of February 2018 when a draft agreement unravelled at the last minute – unpicked by outside forces.

So, this won’t be done until it’s done, and it is not done yet.

Inside Stormont, you notice a spring in the DUP step; the party accused of stalling or slowing things down pre-Christmas.

Westminster leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was at the heart of these negotiations on Thursday, in one bilateral meeting joined by MLAs Paul Givan, Christopher Stalford and Gordon Lyons.

Donaldson’s news conference lines were what you would expect to hear; the need for firm foundations, sustainability – institutions that will be strong and robust.

He believes there is a willingness on the part of all parties to see this over the line, but warned that the last thing we need is another crisis at Stormont.

Those with whom you speak believe that Secretary of State Julian Smith is serious about the January 13thdeadline. They also know he has big cards to play on a financial package that will begin to treat the health crisis.

If that money is available, then few outside of politics will tolerate any arguments over the fine detail of language arrangements or reform to the Petition of Concern.

In conversation with Mark Simpson on the Radio Ulster Talk Back programme on Thursday, I asked: would a stand-alone or distinct Irish Language Act emerge from this negotiation, and I answered my own question: I’m not sure there will be.

For months, the focus of these negotiations has been on the detail of new Irish language legislation – not its title.

I anticipate a wider language, culture and identity package with some over-arching title.

“If it walks like a duck,” one source commented; meaning if the substance of the legislation is right, then the title is not a deal-breaker.

Some sources report little conversation or debate on these issues, leading them to believe that a deal is either done or very close to being done on this package.

There is continuing conversation on reforming the Petition of Concern; applying strict criteria for its use, adjusting numbers required (one source suggests raising the bar to 32 signatures) and introducing a referee or adjudicator in disputed cases. Some think this should be the Human Rights Commission.

These are proposals – not agreements – but the detail gives us an indication of where some of the parties want this issue to land.

On the future sustainability of any new institutions, we know that the negotiation has been about creating more time to resolve matters in the event of a resignation at the top of the Executive – this stretching to some months.

There is a proposal for a new Party Leaders’ Forum to meet monthly in a safe space where early warning would be given of any issues that might create political tension or disagreements. There has also been conversation about enhanced civic engagement.

Any text from this negotiation will also be read for its proposals on accountability and responsibility – these designed to ensure no repeat of the RHI debacle.

The start of next week is the critical phase in this negotiation.

After almost three years in some political limbo, will it deliver?

This is both its best chance and its last chance.

It’s time to decide on Stormont.

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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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