Although only one of 13 MPs to deny Theresa May the green light for calling a Westminster general election, Mark Durkan MP surely got it right for Northern Ireland.
I was not asking for an election last week or the week before; I was arguing that any move to an election in the near future would not help the negotiations in Northern Ireland. My mind has not changed, so why should I pretend that it has?
Of course, this general election has been called without regard to the sensitive ongoing negotiations in Northern Ireland, and it is hard to see how it will not have an impact on those negotiations. First, it will probably colour the parties’ attitude to some of the issues we are dealing with, and it will certainly colour their attitude towards each other and their level of trust. Also, the British Government will not be in a position to give undertakings or commitments in the context of those negotiations as purdah kicks in, so how will we get any sort of comprehensive agreement in such circumstances?
In truth a fifth election in two years will make very little difference to our political scene. A sixth for the Assembly on the same day or another day would be gesture worthy of Pontius Pilate. Surges or retreats by one party or another only harden up positions, whether aggressively or defensively. We should know by now they do not concentrate minds. How could they, when there can be no outright winner, a very weak sense of the common public interest and only conditional allegiance to their own flawed democratic institutions? A political system which is strangled by mutual main party vetoes has the seeds of its own destruction in its DNA. So rather than rate its salvation as first priority, all the energy piles into the minor shifts of opinion that one day just possibly might make a difference in a date with destiny . Or not.
This is what really turns the guys on, identity politics. And of course grudgingly or not, you can see their point. Those are the toys they’re given to play with and they’re a lot more fun rather than getting on with their homework. While they lack the power to call elections they sure can fight any number of them forever and a day, on the basis of inching a little closer to UI or keeping it out of reach. Somehow – and we never know entirely quite how- the money is always found to campaign.
A unionist pact is surely inevitable and there will be a more limited understanding between Sinn Fein and the SDLP. Denis Bradley’s slightly obscure piece in the Irish News makes sense as a coded plea to Sinn Fein not to contest the Foyle seat too hard, in order to let Mark Durkan, the heir of Hume back in again, and to promote his even more ambitious theme of persuading Sinn Fein to recognise their limitations.
Sinn Féin is presently strong but continues to suffer from the blindness that is inherent in the republican project and was easily detected in McGuinness. He and his party were blind to the reality that Sinn Féin are the last people in the world to be able to reconcile with unionism. Charm and a warm handshake does not heal everything. There is too much hurt and death in that mix. They are also blind to the fact are the last people to lead on the Brexit issue. They have neither the knowledge, the people or the experience within that world. They would be better following other more experienced political parties into that morass.
For a few more days, James Brokenshire will stick doggedly to his threadbare script that is the despair of so many people outside the parties. At last, it has now produced a perceptible crack in the British-Irish facade.
Mr Flanagan said: “The Secretary of State has two choices in the event that the talks process doesn’t produce an appropriate and satisfactory result, that is: a series of fresh elections, or direct rule.
“And in that regard I made it quite clear to him the position of the Irish Government is such that we will not support, under any circumstances, direct rule from Westminster in Northern Ireland.”
F or the moment, Mark Durkan is right; it is now too late for the British government to intervene substantially in this talks sequence until after June 9. One urgent decision flagged up in the Belfast Telegraph is what to do about the future of welfare. Will full strength “Tory cuts” be imposed or will the Evason mitigations be implemented in the spirit of the lapsed Fresh Start? Who cares?
We have only questions, no answers. Yesterday I took part in a despiriting Talkback discussion on Radio Ulster with Brian Feeney the Irish News columnist and Peter Osborne the chair of the Community Relations Council, interrupted with interviews with politicians. All of us the politicians included, were mere commentators, nobody took responsibility for the situation. And none of the politicians minded. That was the most depressing thing.
Aside from blaming the other guy, the present standoff has two other pernicious characteristics. One is the magic circle of participants which excludes not only the public but most members of their own parties.
The other is the decision to leave the parties largely to their own devices because the topics are largely devolved to Stormont and therefore no longer the business of Westminster. This has been a serious, even potentially fatal mistake.
Sinn Fein could not have written a better script for the erosion of Westminster’s authority and prestige, even from the low base of the crisis management that was Fresh Start. Whatever the constitutional position – and that’s now increasingly in dispute – Dublin is now the more visible player in our affairs. Charlie Flanagan’s insistence on no direct rule from Westminster ” under any circumstances” out of such a diplomatic mouth shows how the balance has shifted – assuming he has an alternative. At least they debate us in the Dail and sound as if they know roughly where the place is on the map. Therefore this Westminster election will be seen as no more than another sectarian counting of heads.
There will no progress unless there is intervention from the outside the local parties on matters of substance. At the very least by the end of next week, the governments and the parties separately should publish papers which explain in some detail where they stand and what is needed to close the gaps.
How wide a scope for an Irish Language Act? Why is this otherwise obscure topic important? Spell out the differences over the legacy. What do you mean by a rights-based society? SF says Arlene Foster is probably innocent of wrong doing over the RHI. Why oppose her as FM? What are the Brexit concerns for Northern Ireland and how will you address them? What are the domestic policy priorities and can you agree of programme for government? Why do you think the other side is gaming the negotiations? How do you test their sincerity? What is the scope for compromise?
The public – voting and non-voting – have a right to know. Creeping direct rule is woefully inadequate.
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