Sterling, Sweeney,Widdis, McKibbin and Gray. These are the people who could guide Stormont through to restoration

The latest set of Northern Ireland political talks look like a walk in the park compared to struggling through the tangles of Brexit. On the brink of transition, the British government is in a poor position to exert the kind of pressure to nudge the parties towards agreement.  Some signs of life can be seen though.  British- Irish cooperation has at resumed and is even managing to iron out some of the problems caused by Brexit over the common travel area.

So with pressure coming mainly from within, can the parties make a deal on their own? At first sight and in spite of  the flood of optimistic comment after the council elections, the formal starting positions of the DUP and Sinn Fein  have shifted as little as their votes in the elections. The DUP want to restore the political institutions immediately and hold talks on the sticking points in parallel. This assumes that the sticking points are the disease rather than the symptoms. Sinn Fein insist on rights issues being resolved before forming any new Executive.  Inevitably they have agreed to defer the crunch; otherwise talk about talks would have been so much hot air.

The format is not a dictated negotiation but an open agenda on five themes ripe for reform, chaired by the very civil servants who know the topics through and through but were unable to keep the parties on the straight and narrow in government.  Their knowledge of the vacuum in government is second to none.  The officials will not dictate but they will advise and perhaps nudge. At any rate they should be franker than they generally were when they were serving ministers. They  should confess to any of their own failures too, leaving aside as I suppose they must, the RHI saga, pending the  Inquiry report.  This is their unique opportunity to share openly their own assessments of executive performance and point out the incompatible positions and errors made by the parties when they were in office.  With their background of impartiality and ethic of  good government in the public interest, they should be in a better position than any outside mediator to exert the kind of  pressure than the parties  ought to be able to absorb, having won their trust in previous years.

Off the record contacts between the DUP and Sinn Fein should be banned at this stage to encourage agreement on what the problems are before they come to solutions, and to allow the minor parties to exert influence on the outcome.   No petitions of concern or Executive stitch up here.

Mary Lou McDonald’s opening statement proclaims goodwill but sounds   uncompromising on “rights.”

 The Good Friday Agreement is built on the fundamental principles of rights, respect, equality, democracy and peace. These principles remain the basis for re-establishing power-sharing. They do not require renegotiation, they require acceptance and implementation.

That is how we will create credible and sustainable institutions that are built on equality and respect. That is how we will deliver on the issues at the heart of the political impasse, including marriage equality, and rights for women, Irish speakers and victim

The local government elections have demonstrated that society is changing. Not only with regard to the constitutional issues, but the parties making significant advances are united in their support for marriage equality and an Irish Language Act, and in their opposition to the Tory/DUP Brexit.

Sinn Fein’s formal position is that the DUP will never agree to fundamental rights they‘re entitled to after centuries of oppression. They have lost trust in the ability of Stormont to deliver them. They want Westminster – which for this purpose they recognise as the sovereign authority – to legislate on a stand -alone Irish language Act and a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights  provided for in the GFA, and for equal marriage and abortion  which have since  become part of a rights regime in the UK and Ireland, apart from the North.   Before the negotiations, those were their basic conditions for returning to the Executive.

The case for withdrawal from Stormont is supported by the fact that even if Sinn Fein won 51% of the vote they still wouldn’t get their rights passed by cross community consent.  There are points for and against their argument.  On language rights and a Bill of Rights, Sinn Fein are right to claim that the GFA looked forward to their implementation. But they gloss over the fact that Assembly consent is required. They go on to argue that as consent has been withheld for 22 years, Westminster has a moral obligation to impose them over of the heads of the unionists.

You only have to pose the question to expose its unreality.  If they are sincere about returning to Stormont, should they not support freer voting in the Assembly?  A Sinn Fein promise to return to Stormont accompanied by a DUP guarantee not to oppose equal marriage could reconcile the incompatible positions. An informal all- party vote held during the negotiations could break the deadlock.

So rights have to be negotiated but British and Irish pressure and persuasion may yet necessary. Because of Brexit, the DUP deal and now the internal turmoil within the Conservative party, the government is in a poor state to exert pressure. Nevertheless as we saw at Anfield last night, an effort of will can work wonders. The same applies to the local parties.

Arlene Foster’s opening statement blew hot and cold but came down firmly on the defensive.

While some seek to pose as the champions of rights, I will be standing up for the rights of people who want their health reforms, their education reforms and a local devolved government.

The DUP recognises that the issue of the Irish language will have to be dealt with but any package must be fair and balanced. Northern Ireland has language obligations under international treaties, but the approach need not be gold-plated.

In what has been a divided society, cultural recognition ought to provide equal respect and be appropriate, mindful of the sensitivities of other traditions. All elements of our rich tapestry of influences – British, Irish, Ulster and Scots – should be reflected.

Demands about the Irish language do not trump the genuine and heartfelt demands of people of every background to see progress in their schools, roads and hospitals. A fair and balanced deal is the way forward. This is a shared society, and no side can dominate the other.

Balance is the DUP’s big issue – it’s central to their concept of power sharing and contrasts with Sinn Fein’s fundamentalist attitude on rights which they hold to inalienable, enforceable by the courts and immune from political undermining. At least the DUP’s  have  moved away from their majoritarian instincts. Both parties have much to do to focus on the common good that is the holy grail of the talks.

All constitutions enshrine fundamental human rights. But many rights must be won in the political sphere if government is not to be dominated by unelected judges who do not always deliver verdicts people who go to court like.  True, Brexit is creating a rights deficit in the UK as a whole that has yet to be filled.  There is a case but a disputed one, that there is a separate rights deficit in Northern Ireland. It cannot be ignored but it will have to be negotiated. To implement it, the political institutions have to be restored.

 

 


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