A new round of Stormont talks can succeed only if they focus on the need to govern. And British-Irish passivity must end

The local media are reporting po-faced that another “last chance” round of talks about restoring the Executive is about to begin. The interesting fact is that all five Assembly parties will be invited. Other than that, further comment seems redundant for now. The replies will be pored over for clues about any shifts of position. Nothing has emerged so far about the chairing role, neutral, mediating or steered, and whether the two governments or one of them will present any actual proposals. Without them I fear the talks are doomed.  As usual, nothing has emerged yet about the shape of the agenda or who goes first. It would be nice if somebody in the media  was at least to inquire.

At the same time, the background to the talks is rich in incident and comment. What does the McElduff affair tell us about Sinn Fein’s current approach to politics as a new leader is about to take the stage?  Malachi O’Doherty  sees it as a qualified victory for the modernisers  but quotes chapter and verse about how far he believes they have to go.

Whoever leads the party next will have to accept that Sinn Fein’s evolution away from the IRA has further to go. .. Now the question for McDonald is whether she can hold the line there and insist she is not ashamed of the Shankill bombing, the shooting of civilians fleeing the Bayardo Bar bombing, the execution of supposed informers fingered by the chief informer Freddie Scappaticci.

For shame, once admitted to the discussion, has much to say that has gone unsaid for far too long.

Did her Killarney speech reveal a DUP leader sufficiently flexible and imaginative to cut a new deal?   The headline, “ Tone deaf Arlene” gives us a foretaste of  Newton Emerson’s Irish Times piece. While it spins ingenious swirls of  interpretation from her words and record, it resolves itself in a contradiction.

If only she could strike the right tone, circumstances would be transformed.

It would be difficult for anyone to find the right tone in Foster’s position.

And that is the problem of so much comment. Lacking so much hard information in a situation where omerta even about  political strategy is fatalistically  taken for granted, the discourse is overwhelmingly about ideology, attitudes and history.

The parties are like churches who launch off into another round of dispute about free will and the Virgin Birth when they should be getting together to set up food banks for the starving poor.

In the great series of nuclear disarmament talks that went on for 20 years between the US and the USSR, they would have got nowhere if they debated the vices and virtues of capitalism as against communism.  A practical focus for reducing cold war tensions was more than enough to keep them going.   Instead they buckled down to  case by case negotiations about weaponry. If we each agree to give up so many of our multlple  independently targeted re-entry vehicle missiles that target each, will you the Soviets take advantage and increase the number of intermediate range missiles that target Europe?

It may be significant that a softening of positions was revealed in  the TV discussion between two former ministers from  the DUP and Sinn Fein who had shown an appetite for policy when in office.

The talks will fail if they are allowed to dwell on attitudes, ideology and whataboutery. The  strength of  these ever present elements  will emerge naturally in any agreement  to frame a practical agenda for a resumption of government and the essential willingness to compromise.  Over the months hints have been regularly  given that the DUP and Sinn Fein were close to agreement. These can be discounted as resting on huge hypotheses. I doubt if the talks can succeed without a united front of draft proposals from the two governments and the trust of the parties in both governments’ good faith.  There is little sign of either.  But attitudes can change when pressure  from other realities force them to do so.  Has that point arrived?



“Tone deaf Arlene.”

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