The three regional papers have had a great few months. With so much to feed off, that comes as no surprise. I hope it boosts their circulations permanently. They deserve credit for editorially keeping their heads, the nationalist Irish News, unionist Newsletter and let’s- be- sensible unionist- with a-look across -the -divide Belfast Telegraph. Remarkably the slide to collapse and the historic election result haven’t driven them to go blindly partisan. This is good leadership, in both senses of the word and it also tell us a lot about their readerships. The Irish News has vividly described the people’s revolt up the road from Donegall Street. The unionist papers have reflected the DUP’s shock and uncovered rare self-criticism.
As the shock subsides and manoeuvring begins we enter different territory. The elders in all parties are on familiar ground. Play acting supplants authenticity, clarity degenerates into pedantry. Breakthrough at best is over the horizon that becomes a mirage. The deadly phrase will soon be taken out of the archives and dusted down: “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” This time even the British chair is being sledged. In the words of Bill Clinton, no slouch himself, “boy, can those guys talk.”
Brian Feeney flies the flag for Northern Ireland on the highly erudite Radio 4 programme, Round Britain Quiz, a very British kind of parlour game. He’s quite brilliant and cordially displays his staggering knowledge and affection for British and international politics, high and popular culture and learning generally every time he’s on. While there’s no inconsistency with his Radio 4 erudition, his harrumphing persona as the Irish News interpreter of the republican mind is quite different in tone, where he becomes the Richard Littlejohn of West Belfast. In the spread on the Irish News website, Brian starkly sets out the Sinn Fein stall.
Arlene Foster recusing herself from nomination for the post of first minister doesn’t mean an executive automatically follows. So all the talk about her settling for another ministry and nominating another DUP MLA is hot air.
Contrary to what Charlie Flanagan, the current proconsul and much of the media insist, there’s no pressure on Sinn Féin to restore devolved government.
… many people will claim on the basis of no evidence at all that the decline in the nationalist vote in the last couple of elections was because nationalists were broadly satisfied with devolved government.
On the contrary, far from it: there was growing despondency, apathy and in some quarters anger because the Good Friday institutions had failed to deliver.
Sinn Féin know perfectly well, because they heard it from their members, supporters and on the doorsteps that there was massive support for withdrawing from the institutions and furthermore that they’d better not think of going back in minus a radical overhaul including changing the title to Joint First Minister. No more Mr Nice Guy
The media’s faux urgency about establishing an executive ignores the indisputable fact that deals Sinn Féin struck going back over ten years have not been honoured. They and their voters want to see what arrangements have been made for those matters agreed at St Andrews, Stormont House and Fresh Start to be implemented. Nothing less than a calendar of operations will do and as that calendar’s dates are ticked off Sinn Féin can reciprocate: not before. The NIO and DUP must jump first because their bona fide stinks.
While all this seems more than plausible, I’m left with a problem. During the May 2016 election the DUP and Sinn Fein let it be known that relations were so cordial that they were planning a proper programme for government together.
The Democratic Unionist and Sinn Féin Ministers insisted the approach of setting a general framework, and then conducting a public consultation to help shape the ultimate policies, was a more “thoughtful” way of governing. They added that it was one that ensured the maximum degree of community buy-in.
As has always been the style, quite a lot – flags and emblems and the legacy and so on -was farmed out to arms length bodies. This was what Sinn Fein agreed at Fresh Start. There was hardly a peep of objection out of them until the stupendous internecine DUP row over RHI vomited all over the TV. The atmosphere we were constantly told, was quite different from the deadlock during the previous two years. Cooperation between the two leaders continued as late as last December with every appearance of cordiality, as in their joint announcement of a panel on a role for civic society.
If there was “despondency” among the nationalist public, why was not a word said by a courteously cooperative deputy FM and competent Sinn Fein ministers busily going about their jobs? This question is avoided amid the request for privacy and sympathy for Martin McGuinness after the shocking decline of his health.
Now it’s as if the cordial cooperation of last May never happened. We’re in the world of 1984. The storyline of a spontaneous people’s revolt has obvious appeal. But if that’s what really happened, it is a judgement against Sinn Fein for getting their previous strategy wrong. Where is the integrity in going on strike to squeeze a few symbolic political concessions out of a deflated rival instead of exploiting the moral authority of the people’s verdict and thrashing the real issues out in the proper forum of our region’s democracy? The fact is that both parties have preferred to fudge big issues in private or divert them to yet another panel of the great and good. Let them honour their mandate and thrash them out now in public.
So in the interparty talks, will we get authentic positions or playacting? Brian Feeney has obliged with a revised narrative which reads like good propaganda. From another pen, the other Brian would characterise it as such on Round Britain Quiz. Brian is a willing accessory to Gerry Adams whipping up a storm to set the scene for what could be another marathon. It isn’t the media’s urgency that’s ” faux.” They are accountable to their audiences.
Contrast with the broad view in the same paper from Jarlath Kearney, a former Sinn Fein special adviser and brother of party chairman Declan.
This election confirms the 2011 census results and trend lines. Everyone – on all sides – should relax into that reality. This is now a time for patience and prudence. Hard talking needs to be replaced by healing language. Greater generosity must be pro-actively pushed into our public discourse. Stabilised partnership is needed once again.
Which approach will dominate the negotiations? Playacting or authenticity?
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