And we’re back in Belfast with the main parties and their negotiations.
The final deadline is Thursday, but substantial agreement is expected today.
The DUP have obtained a deal that is extremely good for infrastructure, bringing things into the possible that were recently all but pipe dreams, although you may excuse my cynicism that the money made available for health is tinkering at the edges (will it be yet another “if you’re going to do this damn silly thing, don’t do it this damn silly way” scenario as Donaldson stopped short of describing all previous partially-completed health reforms?)
However, how good will it be for the Assembly?
The DUP finds itself in a very strong position, and I am going to suggest that it doesn’t need a deal this week. A deal would be the cream on top of a good week for them, and the absence of a deal is risky, but it’s difficult to see a losing scenario for them.
Scenario 1 – a deal is reached
The DUP may make a gesture on the Irish Language Act – it is hard to see them compromising on Arlene Foster as First Minister at this stage – or Sinn Fein might capitulate for the common good. Everything goes back to normal until the next crisis.
Scenario 2 – Direct rule
The DUP suddenly find themselves with 28 unemployed MLAs, but could extract concessions for individual difficult votes in the House of Commons – Orders in Council made by Direct Rule Ministers in lieu of an Act of the Northern Ireland Assembly are unlikely to be blocked when they are laid before Parliament, but their content and scope could be influenced.
A typical scenario might be equal marriage – if sufficient court cases were lost, direct rule ministers might wish to lay the necessary legislation before Parliament, and there is no doubt that it would pass with bipartisan support. It could instead be a pawn in a battle for votes on an important Bill not covered by the formal confidence and supply arrangements.
This is probably the worst scenario for Sinn Fein, whose ability to influence a Conservative government with a “radical republican agenda” was always limited by mutual opposition to their political and economic aims, and their abstentionism makes the job of the Conservative whips a lot easier – despite Arlene Foster’s claims to the contrary in the BBC leader’s debate before the March Assembly election.
Scenario 3 – a new election
Just what no other party wants, and nor would the population of NI particularly want it, but with the backlash seen in the General Election, the DUP might fancy its chances of getting the additional seats required to revert to abusing the petition of concern and asserting their dominance of unionism, with side benefits for Sinn Fein and nationalism.
For once, I believe that the DUP is genuine in its desire to get the Executive re-established by the end of this week, and not just because so many salaries are at risk (and I am as cynical as they come.)
However, even if a deal is not attained, it is hard to see how they could have a “bad” result from this, either for themselves or for their electorate, the enquiry into RHI notwithstanding.