“Leaving them to it” hasn’t worked. Time for the governments to lead. Here’s how

This is where Theresa May is at today as she meets Nicola Sturgeon in Edinburgh.

Mrs May will say today that her plan for Brexit can create a “more united nation”, suggesting that she will pass some powers from Brussels to the devolved assemblies.

“In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that means fully respecting, and indeed strengthening, the devolution settlements,” she will say, “but never allowing our Union to become looser and weaker, or our people to drift apart. So in those policy areas where the UK government holds responsibility, I am determined that we will put the interests of the Union — both the parts and the whole — at the heart of our decision-making.”

That ‘ll  go down a treat  in Belfast won’t it?   Never has the gap been so wide  between  the agenda of a prime minister  preoccupied with  Brexit and her emotional  attachment  to the Union, and the failure of two strands of the GFA to function in Northern Ireland. She has never  put into words how her  devotion to the Union applies to Northern Ireland.  If she tries it now, she’d better be careful and use a good drafter.  Northern Ireland is only formally in her vocabulary and unlike her protegee  James Brokenshire,  she won’t want to stumble into giving Gerry Adams a hostage to fortune. Adams’  refusal  to recognise  Brokenshire  as an “honest broker” was without doubt an obstacle to the orderly conduct of negotiations  but it should not have been allowed to go so far as to  leave an impression of British impotence.

But events here cry out for leadership which has been conspicuously absent. Alas “leaving them to  it” it isn’t working..  Neither is all the moaning from Cassandras. The proof is in front of us.

Right now  Gerry Adams is  free to run about the park at will without being  at all sure where he’s going. Far from having a cunning plan he implacably follows,  recent history since the failed Stormont House Agreement of 2014 shows a mercurial pattern of chopping and changing and intransigence and  collaboration,  followed suddenly by breakdown. Lenin would not have been impressed.  But now and entirely naturally, in the elation of the moment he’ll  want to drive a wedge between  the British and Irish governments and Fine Gael and Fianna Fail in the hope of gain.  Grown up, skillful politics are needed.

Later.. Now that the talks period has been extended,  the two governments should grasp the nettle and start leaning on the parties while demonstrating their essential unity of purpose. As Brexit proceeds this will be more important than ever.

.They must confirm  the durability, whatever the Brexit pressures,   of the  British-Irish relationship as a contingency against a long stalemate in the north. This is  the right note to strike as Article 50  is  triggered.  They should  pledge to mitigate the effect of Brexit on the border and look forward to  practical  north-south, east-west cooperation.

No one doubts that Northern Ireland will be intimately affected. Despite all the risks of squabbling over symbols and “respect”,  it would be better if the Executive was in place than not. The UK government should resurrect the joint letter sent by  Foster and McGuinness  to May   last year and acknowledge that this is local  Brexit agenda  that needs to be tackled. This would signal that the government are serious about involving Stormont and  welcome  close Irish government collaboration that will be forthcoming.  Sinn Fein could  exercise real influence here. Uniquely as a cross border party, they  could have access to both sides of the negotiating table. This should be an incentive for  them to close a fresh northern deal. They should  forcefully be reminded there’s no point in  shedding crocodile tears about Brexit if they  boycott the means  of mitigating it in preference to harvesting votes and gazing at the stars.  None of  this is very original but  it would start to give shape to a proper talks process.

With politics in the south looking febrile, a border poll might just make the grade as a divisive issue. Fine Gael should show leadership and specifically reject it.   It is not in the interest of Fianna Fail who believe they’re approaching the threshold of government but not  just yet, to divide the main parties for the sake of a try-on by Sinn Fein in the north when the interest in the south in it is currently zero. The point of doing so is to start closing down some of Sinn Fein’s options and lead to them to focusing on demands which are negotiable.

Gerry Adams’ case has to be recognised.  An Irish Language Act has to be feasible. I have argued that the main legacy issues are the responsibility of the British government, so to that extent Adams is right. The case for reviving a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights to replace the bedrock  UK Human Rights Act has become stronger since Theresa May’s  on-off- on-off  flirtation with scrapping it and  perhaps leaving  the European Convention on Human Rights itself. Her reasons were frustrations over legal delays in deporting  foreign  jihadists and  outrage at a ruling giving prisoners voting rights. NI was never in her mind. That in itself is an example of a fundamental problem.

None of these should be red line issues for the DUP. It may be that the problem for them is the same as what it was for Sinn Fein before their resignation, a matter of aggressive tone and style over substance or a fear of seeming weak and on the defensive. If so, both sides should share a common lesson.

The recent history around the Stormont House Agreement – Fresh Start seemed promising at  the time  but in retrospect Adams has a point, that too many cans were kicked down the road. Arlene Foster’s position is still as issue although less commented on.

For the uncertain number of those genuinely interested, the best outcome would be a restoration of Stormont to transact essential business accompanied by an agenda for resolution outside the Assembly,  promoted, moderated and ratified by the two governments, on a sensible time limit and publicly accountable  in regular reports.  This basically would extend the format and ambition of the Fresh Start process.    For some reason that format wasn’t adopted this time perhaps because  the deal failed to stick. That was a mistake. The error if error it was, was the failure  to pin enough down and  gratefully take at face value the evident willingness of the DUP and Sinn to work well together at least for a while.

The task for the next few weeks is how to  get back to that point, chastened by the experience of the quite unexpected collapse. I don’t believe that Sinn Fein were only looking  for a excuse to pull out after the Brexit referendum. Essentially I suspect they yielded to temptation of  the juicy target that Arlene Foster presented. Then it was opportunist improvising all the way.

Worse than the divisions among the local parties because less predictable, has been the lack of leadership from London and Dublin. Governments don’t have the luxury of pleading they’re too busy. They have to take politics as it comes  and gosh, is it coming thick and fast.   All we have at the moment is platitudes or glum silence from the governments and floods of the familiar rhetoric from the locals.  Brokenshire will have to make a statement in the Commons soon as will May. They should not be allowed to get away with empty words.

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