If the Irish Times is right, Dublin HQ has prevented Michelle O’Neill from striking a political deal. It is a deplorable fact that throughout this 10 month deadlock, so little is reliably known about party positions beyond nods, winks and notoriously unreliable mood music. At least in the Brexit negotiations the principals give some sort of account after every session.
Times have changed since 1998. Then, reasons for secrecy were far more credible. The main agenda for much of the time was about making radical shifts of position and trading political developments for paramilitary disarmament. Today the issues are all too well known and less is at stake.
We do not know what Sinn Fein is holding out for beyond the paradigm of a free- standing Irish language Act. If the Irish Times is based on more than anti-Sinn Fein spin, their latest stance strongly implies extended deadlock. It also suggests that Gerry Adams and co are hoping that Brexit will prove to be a disaster and will swing nationalist opinion firmly towards a united Ireland in a referendum which will prove irresistible sometime in the early 2020s. By which time nationalists will have attained or nearly attained, a voting majority. At the very least they may be preparing to sit out the Brexit process to March 2019. But are they? Why is so little pressure being out on them to find out? Perhaps Bill Clinton can find out as the British and Irish governments don’t know or aren’t saying.
Is anybody out there paying attention?
On Spotlight last night, Leo Varadkar at least foreclosed on the idea of early referendums on unity ( plural, remember).
I wouldn’t like us to get to the point whereby we are changing the constitutional position here in Northern Ireland on a 50% plus one basis,” Mr Varadkar said.
“One of the best things about the Good Friday Agreement is that it did get very strong cross border support – that’s why there was a 70% for it.
“I don’t think that there would be a 70% vote for a united Ireland in the morning, for example, or anything remotely close to that.
“And I really think we should focus on making the agreement that we have work.
But Sinn Fein’s Conor Murphy reminded him that neither government can actually veto a northern referendum unless it’s argued that the discretion over holding a complementary referendum in the Republic amounts to a veto on the north.
“If a simple majority vote in favour of reunification, both governments are then obliged to legislate for it. The Good Friday Agreement is the legal and internationally-biding position.”
Mr Murphy said there was “an onus” on Dublin “to plan for unity, to become a persuader for unity, to build the maximum agreement and to secure and win a referendum on unity”.
Leaving aside whether Murphy is right wrong about that, Varadkar is once again making it clear that there is little support in the south for unity referendums and that they should only come at the end of a widely deliberated negotiation, not at the beginning. But with Brexit dominating southern concerns, there seems to be little appetite in Dublin for a more active approach to the domestic deadlock in the north.
Sinn Fein will correctly say that unionists will always refuse to negotiate on unity until or unless they are clearly outnumbered. Yet having identified a stark choice between governing in the north and adopting a referendum- only strategy, they may have chosen the latter. If not, they can at least afford to hedge their bets for as long as the DUP do not appear to move further .
There is ample policy space for the DUP to move further as I argued yesterday. After all they have the prize, the Union itself. It is ridiculous to argue that Northern Ireland is a cold house for them, even though their unsustainable political monopoly was removed long ago.
Everybody can see that in the present turmoil the Union looks less secure in the medium term The argument that Unionists paid too little heed to for a century applies more than ever, that they need to be generous to maintain stability. But if Sinn Fein refuse to engage, a broader public offer from the DUP would leave then looking unacceptably weak.
The only hope may be for the two parties now to be called to account publicly. Up to now the British government have unwisely refused to consider external mediation, having been ruled out as honest brokers themselves. Bill Clinton has dropped by but he is too grand to take on the role. While the US political system has enough in its plate perhaps now is the time for a mediator from Europe, without prejudice to the Brexit negotiations? If not from the EU, why not from Norway?
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