We are in that phase of negotiation now when everyone is reading everything – trying to assess the prospects for a deal; reading tea leaves, the bubbles in their Fanta and the spring in the step of the different negotiators and parties.
When you have too much time on your hands, this is what you do.
“We are in this twilight zone,” one negotiator commented; waiting for the governments to table their text as a basis for agreement. This is expected soon.
The starting point will be to present that document within the talks, before consideration is given to some wider publication.
In the waiting, we have watched and heard about the the mood deteriorating.
It started last Friday, when Michelle O’Neill said and repeated that there will be an Irish Language Act as part of any deal.
It wasn’t one of those throw away lines that you often hear in the numerous news conferences in the Great Hall at Parliament Buildings, but something pre-planned. I had been told during the morning that it would be said.
We have heard the DUP reaction since. No Irish Language Act; that it could not be sold and that they won’t even try.
The packaging and presentation of the languages and culture piece was what tripped up the draft agreement in February 2018 and, almost two years later, it is another banana skin within these talks.
It is not the only unresolved issue.
The negotiation and argument on the Petition of Concern is unfinished business; one DUP source adamant that the POC should be stand-alone and not subject to outside refereeing in disputed cases.
According to a number of sources, the description of a row at a leaders’ meeting on Monday as “tetchy” is something of an understatement.
“It exploded out of nothing,” one commented. Another said it could be heard outside the room in a corridor at Stormont House.
“I’m surprised you didn’t hear it up in Stormont buildings,” one source continued.
“It went beyond acrimonious,” he added.
A negotiation can be allowed to run too long. These talks are well beyond decision time.
“If there was trust there would be enough to get it [a deal]over the line,” one negotiator commented; but there is not trust.
“The big issue,” he continued,”nobody knows who to negotiate with in the DUP.”
For the first time on Monday, I heard a number of sources suggest Secretary of State Julian Smith might allow these talks to run beyond the January 13th deadline.
I have not heard that from the Northern Ireland Office and, one wonders, what would be the point of any such extension.
These unresolved issues have been under discussion for years. It would be political madness if this deadline was stretched yet again.
In a blunt assessment, and with equally blunt words, one negotiator commented: “If this goes past his deadline, I think this thing [devolution]is f***ed.”
Did he mean there would be no point in an Assembly election? “That’s what I’m saying,” he responded.
He means that the next few days represent Stormont’s last chance.
One negotiator suggested the Secretary of State should go to a picket line on Wednesday and say publicly that he has the money to treat the crisis within health.
Julian Smith still has that big card to play and some clearly think he should use it now.