STORMONT: On another walk to its very edge – By Brian Rowan 

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Belfast City Hall doesn’t do quiet or private political meetings, not even on a weekend.

It is a place that talks.

Last Saturday, new DUP leader Edwin Poots was in the building with Paul Givan and adviser Philip Weir. There for a meeting scheduled for 10.30.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill was also there with her special adviser Stephen McGlade, chief negotiator Conor Murphy and party chair Declan Kearney.

Stormont politics is on another of those walks to the edge. The outcome of that City Hall meeting, that stretched through lunchtime, has quickened the pace along that path. Where will it end?

On Saturday, the two delegations met in the Sinn Fein party offices.

Politics is in a period of transition; its destination not yet known.

For now, there is a description of a “complete impasse”, and, again, we are half a step from another crisis – perhaps closer than we think to Stormont blowing its last chance.

It is a familiar place in our politics; another standoff over agreements made but not yet implemented.

The issue, once again, is Irish language legislation. The question, whether new DUP leader Poots can deliver and, more importantly, when.

He was one of the lead players in that recent coup that removed Arlene Foster as leader and First Minister. Poots does not want the top post at Stormont. Givan – his MLA colleague in Lagan Valley – is his choice.

In the way the Executive functions, Sinn Fein has to nominate a deputy First Minister and, without clear commitments on a timetable for Irish language legislation (specifically within this Stormont mandate), that won’t happen.

A Sinn Fein briefing on Sunday included these lines: “We believe they are acting in bad faith. We do not believe they will deliver on the Irish language act. Our position is that the nomination for First Minister and deputy First Minister has to be accompanied by legislation on the Irish language.”

The BBC political correspondent Gareth Gordon reported this response from the DUP: “No one would forgive Sinn Fein for playing fast and loose with people’s lives in Northern Ireland. The DUP leadership stands resolute to enter government, respect power sharing and get on with the job. It is up to others to follow. We remain committed to the New Decade New Approach agreement and want to see it implemented in all its parts.”

That Saturday meeting in the City Hall had not gone well.

There is always a build-up to these moments.

At the end of May, a date was floated – that for Irish language legislation to be delivered within this mandate, the process has to begin by June 24.

Then, on June 6, there was a blog by Declan Kearney listing broken agreements. It took us back to 2013 when the planned  Maze/Long Kesh Peace Centre crumbled in a backlash inside the unionist/loyalist community.

In terse words, Kearney wrote: “All the negotiations are concluded. The new DUP leadership should not make the mistake of overplaying its hand again.”

In the build-up to the collapse of Stormont in 2017, a source had spoken of a momentum in the language “that could take us over the edge”.

The Kearney blog reminded me of those words.

Is there a way out of this corner? We now hear the argument that the Irish language legislation should be moved through Westminster.

This was the message in a statement from Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald after meeting with NI Secretary Brandon Lewis on Monday.

There had been an earlier tweet from former NI Secretary of State Julian Smith, the joint architect with Simon Coveney of that New Decade, New Approach agreement that saved Stormont in January 2020.

Others think it is a bad idea for the UK Government to step in, including a DUP source, who said any such move would be “preposterous” and would remove any semblance of the ability of the DUP and Sinn Fein to work together at Stormont.

This source voted against Poots in the party leadership contest.

Another source – inside the loyalist community – said any such move by the UK Government would undermine Stormont: “You’ve taken another block out of the devolution wall.”

He said there would be a “revolt” and thought out loudly about whether Poots would then have to refuse to nominate Paul Givan as First Minister.

In the mess of the moment, there are no good options. We are in another of those moods that forced then First Minister Peter Robinson to step back from the Maze/Long Kesh project in 2013.

In this centenary year, the post-Brexit Irish Sea border has caused an earthquake within parts of the unionist/loyalist community. Now, this latest fight on Irish language.

At Stormont, the clock is ticking and there’s not much time.


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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

2 Comments

  1. Barry Fennell on

    Unfortunately like many many times in the past we are in the domain of twisted and illogical zero-sum politics involving Unionists – an all too familiar space for us all. I do believe that the cultural aspects and the Irish Language package of the New Deal New Approach should be implemented particularly if those intentions and promises were made previously – otherwise Stormont will blow its last chance for good. You would like to think by now that the parties should really be capable to get through and over situations in which an advantage that is won by one of two sides and lost by the other is a thing of the past – and as you mention: “In the mess of the moment, there are no good options.”

  2. What an absolute shit-show (pardon my French)!

    – we have the political wing of a still fully-armed terrorist organization who abstains from taking seats at Westminster but actively pushing said legislature to pass laws in NI they otherwise wouldn’t be able to, in addition to holding the entire NI democratic (such as it is!) process to ransom over unneeded legislation for a barely-spoken leprechaun language. Here’s some Irish for ya, my Shinner friends… Téigh trasna ort féin!

    – we have a British government that’s supposed to be impartial in NI affairs but via a Secretary of State who rather fancies himself something of a tinpot colonial governor of some distant coconut colony, we have HMG going over the heads of NI’s elected representatives, driving a coach and horses with reckless abandon through the principle of both consent and devolution, and imposing laws on NI that are transferred matters for the Assembly. If I were Mr Lewis, I’d be cutting down on the donuts and knowing his place in the constitutional order… arrogant fat bastard he is!

    – then we have unionism split between a DUP in complete meltdown and the UUP now led by a signed-up member of the woke brigade just as unionist unity is needed most to combat an iniquitous protocol imposed by the EU elected dictatorship and a narcissistic buffoon in 10 Downing St who only believes in something if his new wife allows him to… I actually miss Theresa May and Karen Bradley and I never thought I’d say that!

    Honestly, if the Republic of Ireland wasn’t in the EU, I’d vote for a united Ireland tomorrow… and by God, would I demand some concessions from Dublin for it too… among others, some very specific constitutional amendments that would eliminate certain recently-passed laws there!

    Somewhere, Terence O’Neill is saying “I told you all this five decades ago, I warned you about it, but you didn’t listen…”

    Hardline unionism never does… and we’ve all been spattered by the ensuing fan-projected excrement now for the last 50 years, alas…

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