More delay over a return to the Assembly needs challenging by the two governments

So  the target date for either direct rule  or an agreement to revive the Executive has slipped  for  another week at least. What a surprise!   We were told by the two governments yet again that ” progress” had been made, but this has been slapped down by the DUP.

Sinn Fein’s agenda as far as I know it is not inherently unfeasible. The problem is that it’s Sinn Fein who’s running with it.  Crafty old Gerry for false-footing the DUP?  Or silly old Gerry for impaling himself  on a hook?  Do I care  if I cannot know which it is?

In this blog Mike Nesbitt has gone back to basics to take the familiar line of blaming Sinn Fein for weaponising the Irish language   and “rights and equality “ as a whole .  The problem for on lookers is that we cannot test the strength of either position as lack of accountability has been complete and pressure to deliver non-existent.

As institutional discrimination has been outlawed by GFA legislation the demands are essentially matters of detail which it was expected would finally only be dealt with gradually accommodating  politics buttressed by occasional forays into the courts. That this has not gone well is to put it mildly.

In the absence of active politics, we are left with testing the robustness of rights before the courts , which are elaborately guaranteed by GFA legislation.  For instance, the Committee for the Administration of Justice (CAJ) are having a go against the Conservative -DUP pact on equality grounds.

Fidelma O’Hagan, a solicitor with the CAJ, pointed out that the agreement implied that a “number of decisions have already been taken to earmark funding that have equality implications”.

Among those, she said, was £400m for a road interchange and other infrastructure in Belfast whereas “the existing infrastructure deficit is largely in the mostly Catholic west of the [river] Bann rather than Belfast”.

She also questioned whether any proposed expansion of public sector jobs in Northern Ireland “through expansion of reserve military regiments” was being considered since those posts have traditionally been taken up more by Protestants than Catholics.

Here surely a rights approach has gone beyond the limit of viability. Is there  anybody who believes that spending on the West Link or the A5 and A6 is not better dealt with by politics?

How far can equality be stretched? Should rights and equality demands be met automatically simply because a major party is making them? If that were so, political institutions wouldn’t be needed at all. We could rely on the courts alone.

In reality, the application of rights has to be negotiated in the context of  the genuine capacity to deliver them. There may be a right to work but how far is it the duty of the state to create jobs? This is where the creation of new statutory social and economic rights runs into trouble.

On the other hand, the right to better welfare payments  was conceded to Sinn Fein to some extent and mitigated by  the Assembly by agreement. Any attempt to railroad the universal charge in NI will equally be resisted by the DUP who are in a powerful position to get their way here with the Conservative government.

Taken to the ultimate, equality without politics must mean dual sovereignty,  In  this area it contradicts the majoritarian  principle of consent to a united Ireland or the territory remaining solely  in  the UK. Unionists would have a veto over a unity-voting majority.   So by implication even Sinn Fein recognise that equality as a concept has its limitations.

How can you have equality over language?  English is inherently stronger than Irish and Irish vastly superior to Ullans.  Both these assertions – like any viable solution –  are value judgements which equality doesn’t recognise . Equality on the narrow language point would either mean very little Irish or an awful lot of Ulster Scots or marching bands. “British “  culture is universal and inherently neutral.

Social equality, that is ,  racial and religious diversity, and economic equality which are currently major themes in bigger politics are essentially ideals against which to measure  policy. They are about work in progress, not single issues.

Looked at rationally – a novelty, I know –   Sinn Fein’s known  targets are all the more potent  because they are inherently feasible. A strictly cash- limited Irish Language Act without a cod balance for Ulster Scots and implemented  in test phases  makes sense. A draft NI Human Rights Act is a hedge against any threat to abolish the coping stone  that is the UK Human Rights Act at the end of this Parliament,  when it may  be reviewed.  The British  government should allocate the funding for historic inquests straight away from the £150 million it has already set aside for  processing historic cases. Agreement on these measures is  probably beyond the capacity of the parties and should be initiated by Westminster with Dublin’s support.

With the introduction of necessary momentum, the issue of a comprehensive statute of limitations is just over the horizon as a recent report of the Commons Defence Select Committee has suggested.  A  Bill should be drafted for local referendums on same sex marriage and abortion.

These actions from Westminster  would at least raise the quality of debate by giving them all something to bite on.

Charges of lack of impartiality levied against the British government are less important than its inertia. The parties have been allowed to keep their positions festering privately for almost ten months and through two elections. From the little enlightenment  I’ve received,  this has defeated even the seasoned journalists.

Effective pressure from London and Dublin has been virtually non-existent due to Brexit turmoil and a reversion to historic British indifference. It would surely help if both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail were  at  least to pose the question of how they could possibly cooperate with Sinn Fein after the next Dail election if they don’t  return  to Stormont.

How does Brexit play into this?  I don’t share the Irish deep pessimism  about a hard border.  However Unionists may feel that Brexit will have effect of increasing constitutional divergence perversely. This is an unexpected gift to them and should make them more accommodating  on the practical issues, which the Conservatives might point out. In the real world away from identity obsessions it makes practical north-south  and east –west cooperation all the more essential.

Unionists are as opposed to a hard  border as anybody. One more reason for the Executive to re-form.   Show leadership and pass the test of the Irish language.

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