The blame game continued in Stormont last week with arguments about who was holding progress between the DUP and Sinn Fein. We are now 14 months on without a government and we seem further away from seeing any form of functioning assembly. For both of the main parties the failure to secure agreement on some of the main outstanding issues is holding up progress in restoring devolution.
Contrary to some musings that it suits both the DUP and Sinn Fein to have Stormont on ice for the next few months it is actually in the longer interests of both to have a functioning government in Belfast. For the DUP, whilst some of their representatives might be basking in the glow of Westminster, most of their more long term thinkers recognise that their influence over the Conservatives is fleeting and to properly prosecute their agenda, they need to be leading an administration.
For Sinn Fein, yes they have a focus on government in Dublin, but a key part of achieving that for the party is their record in Northern Ireland. The status of having ministers and being a leading partner in government complimented the attainment of their goals in the South. Many of the party’s representatives recognise this fact and the deal they were prepared to sign up to earlier this year is a testament to their desire to get back into government.
The key question remains however, how do develop a circuit breaker to resolve some of these key issues?
One option is actually possible and that is a British-Irish intergovernmental conference to resolve some of key sticking points of dispute. If Stormont is going to remain in a state of paralysis, then we need something to properly clear the air. No it is not an ideal situation and the inability from some quarters to grapple with some of these issues is dispiriting but if we are to stop merely going round in circles there has to be a process put in place to resolve these issues.
A conference doesn’t have to resolve every last bit of disagreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein. It simply needs to deal with some of the more high profile issues of marriage equality and the Irish language. On the horizon a future Executive will have plenty to work on from dealing with the lack of an administration over the past year to the implications of Brexit. Clearing the air before restoring devolution will allow politicians to press the reset button on devolution.
Another round of talks will merely just go round in circles. We don’t need another set of meetings with Karen Bradley and Simon Coveney. What Northern Ireland needs is a circuit breaker to end the drift and give some direction as to where we are going. Trying the old process over again and expecting a different result would be a supreme act of folly. It’s time for the two governments to bite the bullet, call a conference and resolve these key issues, then start the process of restoring a functioning government.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs