Colum Eastwood is the Leader of the SDLP
There are times when silence is golden and there are times when it is anything but. For weeks now the Stormont talks have operated under a cloud of secrecy feeding the frustration of everyone. There are only so many press releases that the NIO can put out which talk about ‘some progress’ or ‘significant gaps’.
There are only so many press conferences that can be staged with everyone saying the same thing.
Every TV and radio report on the talks could be played, rewound and played over – the public are being drip-fed the same, limited information over and over again. The reason for that is simple. The senior teams of the two big parties are locked away in a room and are saying nothing –not even to their own people. Everyone else – politicians, media and the public are locked outside.
Too often that silence is lauded as discipline and loyalty rather than being called out for what it really is – a deliberate lack of transparency. After 9 long months of talks, that secrecy only acts to serve the interest of the internal cohesion of their parties and does nothing to serve the interest of the greater public. In the SDLP, we published our positions on the talks weeks ago. Those positions weren’t solely on cultural issues but covered the whole scope of what government is supposed to be about.
Our main focus of the negotiation is trying to get a Programme for Government which includes provisions for increased childcare support, city deals, tackling poverty and regional economic disparity, an expansion in home building and an increase in funding and places for higher education. It is telling that neither the DUP or Sinn Féin have shown any real interest in those issues. It’s hard to talk to people who don’t want to talk back.
After 10 years of a government which largely failed to have any significant impact on the economic and social landscape of the North – that’s the status quo the SDLP are determined to replace.
Having published the SDLP positions, last week I challenged both the DUP and Sinn Féin to publish their papers and any progress that we’re told they’ve made.
Let’s see what substance the DUP has agreed to in terms of the Irish language, let’s see what progress has been made on legacy, let’s see if there has been any movement on the reform of the petition of concern which would finally allow the introduction of equal marriage.
The people bearing the brunt of the crises in our health service and in our schools deserve to know why they are paying the price of the failure to form a government.
Publish the papers and let us all judge who is the biggest block to the return of devolution.
Of course there is a reason they don’t want that information to get out. If no deal is done, they can each walk away and they can each blame each other – with no one any the wiser on who moved and who didn’t. And all the while they’re let away with it, northern politics remains locked in a cycle of negotiating through the layers of language rather than through the detail of policy.
So as we enter into the end of this negotiation, both big parties must now be collectively pressured to publish the deal that is or publish the deal that wasn’t. Either way, we have had enough of the DUP and Sinn Féin’s golden circle of silence.
That silence has led us to one place – Sinn Féin and the DUP are within hours of buying us all first class tickets to Direct Rule and we’ll all end up being governed as second-class citizens.