However it began, this is no mere blip

It puzzled me to hear that the two prime ministers decided on the spur of the moment to fly to Belfast yesterday afternoon. Everybody in Belfast could have told them that’s what they were going to do. The rattles had been thrown right out of the pram and nursey was needed. Mark Hennessy makes the correction in the Irish Times. But why did they gather in Downing St at all and waste the best part of a day? They could have had their pre-meet at Hillsborough. Were they underestimating the crisis up the 11th hour ? Did they really believe that the meeting between McGuinness and Robinson would be the breakthrough? The minimalist view Brown and Cowen presented is clearly flawed “Just a couple of points to clear up and we’ll be home for breakfast ( I made that last bit up). What I might call the middle view, Pete’s theory of the contrived crisis, was interestingly a point of division in late night briefings.

DUP’s Sammy Wilson “As far as we are concerned this is a contrived crisis, we don’t need to be here.
(Conor) Murphy of Sinn Fein argued: “It’s not a contrived crisis. If it was contrived, I doubt that you would have the taoiseach, the British Prime Minister and the possibility of the Americans becoming involved,” he said

While I’d say Chris Donnelly makes too much of Sinn Fein faultlessness, they’ve been playing their hand with their usual emotional intelligence (craftiness to you). But it seems to me that Sinn Fein are as entitled as the DUP to say they’re under pressure. And they’re entitled to an answer to the fundamental question: after standing down the IRA and supporting policing against our own apostates, what do we have to do?”

Then there’s the maximalist view, that the parades issue goes to the heart of insecurities on both sides. However expressed, unionism wants fewer restrictions on parades and nationalists are resisting any further concessions.. Based on their experience of much unionist-dominated council behaviour, nationalists fear that if parades rulings are handled by councils, unionist councils will take the “triumphalist” view and back them willy-nilly. Mediation is on the back foot immediately and Sinn Fein lose the first round. They can’t afford to do that with eirigi and the dissidents breathing down their necks locally at key flashpoints. Parades therefore are about basic confidence, self and mutual.

It’s true that the main parties’ positions are replete with irony. On parades handling, it’s Sinn Fein who are resisting devolution to elected representatives and the DUP who drag on J&P the traditional unionist touchstone for full self-government. “Why are the Shinners so keen on it,” they wonder, “ do they know something we don’t?”. If the premiers manage to get the two anomalies into synch they might be getting somewhere. But their main pitch must be to think the unthinkable. If the vacuum expands, the mantra everybody is repeating, that of course the troubles can’t come back, will begin to ring hollow. If the dissidents’ rhythm quickens, who knows where it leads if politics runs out – and how foolish to hand the initiative over to them. So make no mistake, however it started, this stand-off goes to the heart not only of powersharing but the ability to live in a stable peace. It’s the arms decommissioning and criminality problem of the 2010s. We can only hope that the narrower focus permits a faster resolution.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London