Despite all their protestations, have you registered the faintest hint from the governments or parties about how to approach the restoration of the Executive?
The absence of ideas for exploratory dialogue even in private strongly suggests a lack of seriousness and a cynicism that is an insult to the public’s inteligence. If it were possible, it would bring politics into further disrepute.
The only possible defence is that we’re being softened up for a bogus show trial for political failure, followed by a general washing of hands as the regional institutions of the GFA are mothballed. They all may be separatedly calculating that the others will accept that there’s no way through until Brexit is somehow resolved and the rival voting tribal leaderships see some percentage in governing responsibly or making the essential concessions for bringing Stormont back.
They may be counting on the public resigned to failure long ago… Civil society and the media make the odd bleat of protest rather than the stinging crticism and towering rage that the situation demands. At best, the prospects for any talks start from a very low base.
But let’s be generous. Although society isn’t fe
acing anything as fundamental as a threat of major renewed violence, we suddenly encountered a unique and bizarre combination of major political accidents (events, dear boy)”; R7yHI, the Brexit referendum and the fatal illness of Martin McGuinness, each of which was enough to tip the already tenuous and endlessly renegotiated accommodation into a bout of fundamentalism which the voters obligingly endorsed in two elections. Nostalgia for the small window of optimism after May 2016 may be misplaced, but perhaps shows that no situation is irretrievable.
The human rights lawyer Brice Dickson has expertly exposed the reality that Sinn Fein’s ” rights based society” is a political construct like any other and not based on Moses-like tablets of stone before which all must worship without argument. But there remains an obvious need to supply stronger evidence of mutual respect combined with a sense of proportion in the conduct of our politics .
Remember the late Maurice Hayes’ description? ” For Chrissake what good does it do an old guy wanting a heart transplant.. to say.. Oh we’re having a language act?.. ” And he went on: “The DUP can never pass by a cause without giving it a good kick”.
While common sense asperity like this should be shouted from the rooftops, it is not enough. Nor is enough to criticise a party’s motives without putting them to a fresh test, after a year of Sinn Fein withdrawal.
The two governments, uneasily manoeuvring around each other over Brexit, should spot the advantages for the post- Brexit relationship in devising an active joint approach to the way ahead in the North. The situation today ought to be more amenable to direct pressure, compared with 20 or even 12 years ago, when demilitarisation was incomplete and the DUP and Sinn Fein had not established a relationship to lose in the Assembly and Executive, perhaps irretrievably.
One small obstacle needs to be removed. If negotiations are to be meaningful, the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference can be forum for detailed consultation on the North, not as a joint instrument of government if talks fail. That would make it an unaccountable constitutional monstrosity bjgger than a Brexiter’s horror vision of the EU Commission. Most money comes from London, the parliament is British and the rule of law is British with Irish and international links. Whatever the political relationship, the constitutional fundamentals can’t be ignored. It beats me why Dublin bangs on about this. It spooks the DUP unnecessarily. The B-I relationship needs no further spelling out.
On “respect ” – and that means respect all round- ,a charter or programme for tackling the implementation of perceived rights foreshadowed in both the GFA and in St Andrews and agreed between the governments should be put jointly to the DUP and Sinn Fein together with recommendations on process and outcomes. A key requirement would be a lifting of the blocking mrchanism of the petitions of concern in the Assembly and clarity about cost limitations. Mainly, it would require the parties to accept verdicts democratically reached by simple majority in subjects which now should embrace as many points of contention as possible, including same sex marriage, abortion reform and a viable language act. The outcomes in a finally balanced Assembly would be interesting. Would either the DUP or Sinn Fein dare to.put their present positions to the test?
Have the cultural traditions consultative group fallen down a black hole? Have they anything to say? My impression is that loyalist groups are working for the resolution of difficulties in the parades, flags and emblems area so there may be good news there.
On the major legacy issues, the deadlock seems firm. From the DUP, no ” one sided justice”. no money for security forces inquests unless IRA omerta ends.
But this is gross politicisation of the rule of law and should be ended by the British government which has the legal aurhority to do so. The Conservatives must modify their careless overidentification with the DUP’s cause. This need not be a deal breaker for the Conservative-DUP pact. The government and the DUP have cover because the request for funding inquests has come repeatedly from the chief justice and the Unit from the PSNI. The £150 million direct from Westminster set aside for tackling the legacy caseload should therefore be released without local political agreement if necessary. The next five years should be used to examine the viability of fresh prosecutions and a halt to prosecutions after that.
Finally, back to the Hayes question. The British government should confront the parties with real choices on the Budget. The Assembly plenary with all parties attending should be used for major statements and carefully timed debates for phased negotiations.
If the Irish government is to be included. the Northern Ireland public should most certainly not be left out.
This outline may be full of holes and it’s hardly the last word. But it’s depressing that as far as I can see, it’s pretty much the only word I’ve seen at this juncture of our politics. If I’m wrong, let’s give the others an airing.
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