Pressure to resume the responsibilities of government is not a winning card

So how are the prospects for the talks being trailed?   Are three women, Arlene, Michelle and late  joiner Karen are up the creek with Simon but without a paddle? Or will they brave the towering waves of cynicism to ride them out and make it home  to everyone’s  huge surprise?

Karen – as we must get used to calling the secretary of state for the time being -, repeats the standard stale brief, that agreement is close if only.. She sets the vaguest of deadlines; it would be nice to have something to say by NI Questions on 7 February. The suppressed disagreement with the “ co-guarantor” Simon Coveney is just visible to anoraks.   The lead role is British, no messing, as the talks begin “ alongside the Irish Government, respecting the well-established three-stranded approach to Northern Ireland affairs.”( i.e. Dublin, hands off the details of devolution).

So separate talks with each of the five parties, then a round table then…. what? How well prepared is Karen to  cut through the thickets of humbug?

.. on  the possibility of bringing in an impartial chairperson to mediate the talks, due to the possible conflict of interest created by the confidence-and-supply agreement between the the Conservative Government and the DUP.

Mrs Bradley said she was “not ruling anything out”, but stated the confidence-and-supply agreement was separate to negotiations to restore Stormont.

“Not ruling” anything out  when  she  hopes  for a favourable update by 7 February? Good luck with that.

The head of the civil service throws in his mite of pressure..

 David Sterling, says that “it will be incredibly difficult” if there is no certainty over the Stormont budget by 8 February.

In reply there is not the slightest sign that  Sinn Fein are impressed while on direct rule the DUP seem to be saying “bring it on” as it puts them centre stage, according to Mark Devenport, who has more material on the meteorological weather outside Stormont than the political weather inside.

I suppose the question should be asked: Would returning  ministers of the type and competence w’ere familiar with  make any difference to  solving difficult problems?

In the Irish News, Sinn Fein sympathiser Brian Feeney struts his passive-aggressive stuff to invoke the blameless economic commentator John Simpson  in  support of  his claim that returning Stormont ministers would be helpless in the face of the familiar monster, “Tory cuts.”  In fact Simpson argues the opposite. While true, the UK Treasury spending envelope remains, John wrote in the previous week:

“The Stormont budget for 2018-19 is heading for a deficit of £200m to £300m just to meet the needs of current services.

Officially, nobody has firm plans on how to manage this shortfall. Civil servants do not easily or competently manage their own demise. Not a single department has volunteered to save funds by introducing a further voluntary exit scheme.

Part of the preparation for tightened budgeting for 2018-19 and onwards should be an examination of the scope to increase revenue from devolved taxes or charges and reduce costs and benefits in which Stormont has already used devolved discretion.

Top of the list, with little surprise, is the cost of not introducing domestic water and sewerage charges. This effectively earmarks more than £150m.pa that would be available for other uses. Next highest cost is incurred through the partial de-rating of manufacturing industry which costs nearly £60m. Still not introduced but relevant for the next budget is the pending annual cost of corporation tax revenue foregone. The Department of Finance quotes an expected cost of £250m pa.

Just for starters. He goes on…

The scale of the demands on public services and policies is so large that, ideally, the parties should develop an agreed cross-party mechanism to make critical decisions. Might the incoming ministers be asked to work ‘in pairs’ so that agreed cross-party proposals are tabled? Either way, the current logjam must be broken.

So far John Simpson’s analysis has fallen on deaf ears. The DUP and Sinn Fein may prefer to duck the “real issues” rather than take the flak and risk the one scapegoating the other for ” austerity. We may have face up finally  to the fact that  our politics are not really about the business of government at all. So why bother talking about it?

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