Only the most basic information has emerged so far out of the set piece statements from the parties. Arlene Foster’s offer of a return to the Executive “without pre-conditions” and do sensible things like passing the budget was never going to be enough to draw in Sinn Fein, whose whole position was all about setting conditions. If she was ever going to give satisfaction on matching Sinn Fein’s unmanageably long list of demands, why not give some specific declarations of intent now? She seems to have made no substantive replies to Gerry Adams’ specific demands. The kindest thing that can be said about the talks so far – and maybe forever – is that they’ve been exploratory. There has been no attempt at dealing.
As a hobnobber with presidents and prime ministers ( he met his first secretary of state in 1972 when James Brokenshire was 4) and a veteran of decades of negotiations among a set of novices, Gerry Adams is the nearest to a strategist the talks have got. No nonsense either of Michelle O’Neill being in charge; this is president’s business and he also has impending upheaval in the Dail to think about. With his insistence that the talks were about “an implementation process not a negotiation or re-negotiation” he has used the approaching time limit to try to stampede the DUP on the defensive into concessions knowing , surely, that he would not succeed in the time available or even at all. He has also lectured the two governments about how they should conduct their business. Yet he’s confident that they’ll all get there in the end, implying that if they don’t, it won’t be his fault.
From the scanty evidence available there seems not to have been formal full sessions at all, just a series of random conversations with a vacuum at the centre. The role of chair has been conspicuous by its absence. No one seemed to be trying to sort the wheat from the chaff and picking out points of tentative agreement and trying to build on them, either face to face or in proximity talks It’s as if nobody representing the government has ever heard of the 1998 and 2006 – 7 processes or even the Fresh Start fifteen months ago.
The evidence of the junior parties is the best we’ve got. From SDLP leader Colum Eastwood:
”rigid opposition to compromise on key issues, particularly from the DUP, has made a comprehensive resolution more difficult to reach”.
From Tom Elliot, the Ulster Unionists’ chief negotiator:
The current phase of talks was the worst he had been involved in.
Unless there is a massive u-turn in terms of attitude from the two largest parties, then Northern Ireland could be in for a period of prolonged drift.
“I understand the secretary of state took the attitude that the blockages to progress were devolved matters and therefore allowed the DUP and Sinn Féin to take the lead, with the government offering support.
This last point is revealing. If Elliot is correct, secretary of state James Brokenshire who has constitutional oversight of the devolved process seems pedantically to have made no attempt to exert any influence on the main devolved matters at issue. Nor has he made an effective contribution on legacy matters for which the UK government in reality carries the major responsibility.
Small wonder that Gerry Adams has been passing damning judgement on the show so far, including on the passivity of the two governments. What did he expect when he’s been allowed to dominate it?
There’s a weary inevitability about the breakdown. Unless there’s a miracle before 4 pm what will Brokenshire do next? Can he really suppose another election will sort things out?
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