As a comparative outsider I’m struck by how most commentators are obsessed with speculating about political positioning and identity narratives. This has produced numbing negativism and despair rather than the energy needed to approach the daunting but practical problem of trying to restore the Executive. Being case hardened and calloused, they endlessly refine their own explanations for obvious failure. They accept the parameters set by the DUP and SF too readily. To be fair, this is often the default caused by a lack of firm information that Stalin’s Central Committee would have been proud of.
Why have civil society and the political class beyond the DUP and SF protested so little about 10 months of virtual secrecy, the Alliance party exempted? Contrast this with the public rows and pressure over the Brexit negotiations in Brussels. The tradition of secrecy lies in Sinn Fein’s origins in armed conspiracy, the DUP’s in one man band dominance and society’s long years of helplessness in the face of political violence and turmoil. Secrecy was more understandable when the GFA was about trading disarmament for political clout. But the stakes today are so much lower now and are closer to conventional politics. There is so much less excuse for secrecy today. In fact a process of genuine negotiation has barely begun.
Did the DUP-SF duopoly since 2007 fare quite so badly? The record is surely better than that that of the first decade of the Assembly. The fact that so much pain is now concentrated on the pinhead of the Irish Language Act shows that the main parties have little of substance to fight about other than fighting itself. This is a situation ripe for mediation and pressure.
Why the long deadlock? It can partly be explained by the destabilising effects on an already fragile compact of the amazing sequence of ” Events dear boy”, RHI, the sudden illness and death of Martin McGuinness and looming over all, Brexit. Two elections and a change of taoiseach haven’t helped prospects for sustained effort. And then there’s the question of the British government’s impartiality, most recently attacked by Gordon Brown. But how big an obstacle should this be provided cards are face up on the table? Recognition of Irish self- determination need not mean indifference to the North’s position in the Union any more than the Republic’s aspiration for Unity.
Rather than indulging quite so much in thankless efforts in trying to lift the curtain on political strategy, it’s worth taking at face value Sinn Fein’s presumed demands as far as they’ve deigned to explain them.
They have neatly grabbed the progressive agenda on gender issues which has appeal beyond their core.
They ask fair questions which the British government has avoided answering for years.
Will Westminster release funds for historic inquests like “the Ballymurphy massacre” and others?
My belief is yes, on legal grounds just as they are now introducing votes for prisoners, even though the prospect made David Cameron “ sick.” and even though there will much unionist support for the private members ‘ Armed Forces Protection Bill restricting grounds for prosecuting soldiers in combat and co-sponsored I note by DUP MP Emma Pengelly.
Sinn Fein’s case that Westminster has reneged on introducing a Northern Ireland Human Rights Bill and an Irish Language Act has some force if it is not the clincher they think it is. Westminster was bound to refer both to the Assembly once power was devolved, where they‘re deadlocked. But this does not remove all responsibility from the government. A good case can be made for versions of both. On the language there are the Welsh and Scottish precedents. On human rights, while the threat of replacement of the bedrock UK Human Rights Act and ending appeals to Strasbourg have been lifted for this parliament, it could be renewed in the next one.
But Gerry Adams errs fundamentally in chosing not to recognise that the application of rights to real life conditions has to be negotiated and that requires a return to the Assembly. The more he bangs on about rights, the more he unwittingly emphasises the need to negotiate on details. Declaring the comparatively recent aspiration of same sex marriage as a self-proclaimed “right” is to say the least, undemocratic however much I too agree with it.
Referendums might be introduced to decide matters of conscience and cross community appeal, such as same sex marriage and introducing abortion rights.
Honour should be satisfied over RHI if Arlene Foster pledges to resign if the public inquiry finds her culpable or negligent.
The arguments therefore are strong for a far more active approach by the British government in particular to restore devolution. Will it happen? Given the current approach and the state of the government, the answer must be doubtful. They can just about hold the line of extreme caution if there was a chance of spontaneous agreement but that cannot last forever.
It is evident that if there is to be a new deal, it will chalk up victories for Sinn Fein. A counterbalance of support for tougher action against continuing paramilitary and gangland activity would not I presume satisfy the DUP and anyway it would apply to both sides. The DUP might threaten to withdraw from the pact with the Tories but it would be a high risk gamble to alienate their Conservative friends. The eventual Brexit deal – if there is one – may provide the wider context to make Executive restoration more appealing even though the context there is still impossible to discern.
As Fionnuala O’Connor has rightly pointed out in her latest jeremiad, what the Irish government means by “no return to the direct rule of the past” is a “mystery” they need to clear up fast. There is a partly hidden gap between the two governments over Dublin’s role under direct rule that has to be faced up to and closed. This is one reason why the British have been tip-toeing around the negotiations.
There is therefore an agenda for debate leading to implementation that is worth pursuing in detail rather than staying stuck so firmly in the past wringing our hands. The Assembly could be convened as a consultative body to hear proposals and progress reports from British ministers and Irish ministers by invitation. If not the Assembly, the long promised Civic Forum should be formed at last. The accountability proposals from Robin Wilson and Steven Agnew are well worth considering .
The future cannot be left to the main parties entirely. The present passivity and extreme caution by both governments must end soon and be replaced by putting forward proposals which neither the DUP nor SF will entirely welcome but can be persuaded or pressured to accept. Otherwise, what is the point of their existence?
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