So here we go again. We had the Good Friday talks, the St Andrews Talks,the Hillsborough talks, talks on Policing and Justice, the Haass talks, then in July Unionists walked out of the talks that followed the failure of the Haass talks. And of course there were talks about talks. It’s never ending. Now we have more “all party talks” and bi-lateral talks, and North-South talks. The British, Irish and US governments are all sending representatives, like school teachers managing an unruly class of miscreant kids. At least half of the class seem to be slow learners.
Failure a Real Prospect:
This time, on top of the Haass agenda of Flags, Parading and the Past, are added the issues of Welfare Cuts, Budget issues and even the Re-structuring of the Government Institutions themselves. No one should harbor raised expectations of major progress. Especially with the DUP now attempting to frame the discussions as “front loaded” with issues they want to talk about. Issues such as Welfare Cuts, the Budget and Institutional reform. The DUP now seem to be serious about radically restructuring governance at the Assembly with Peter Robinson recently describing the mandatory coalition arrangement as “not fit for purpose”.
But Sinn Fein, are very unlikely to move on Welfare cuts as their core constituency is set against such a move. Also, the success of the talented socialist Paul Murphy and the Anti Austerity Alliance in the recent Dublin (South West) by-election will have the SF strategists diligently guarding against attacks from the left. This ensures SF will probably not move on the Welfare and Budget issues. Additionally, any push toward re-constituting the Assembly will be viewed with great suspicion by CNR (Catholic, Nationalist, Republican) community. There can be no possibility of a return to Unionist rule.
Furthermore, SF will be concerned that the DUP and Peter Robinson cannot be trusted to keep their word in negotiations. They will remember the “Letter from America”, when Robinson failed to complete a previous deal on the Maze / Long Kesh site. Then there is the recent Assembly Speaker post, where the DUP patently failed to keep it’s word on a long standing deal whereby a SF speaker would follow the retiring DUP speaker. Several observers argue by acting in this way the DUP have politicized the role of speaker and thereby damaged the democratic process.
Consequently, it is unlikely SF will trust the DUP enough to agree to anything in the front end of the talks, unless and until everything is agreed, including the Past, Parading and Flags. This is all too much to achieve, and we have traveled this road to no effect several times before.
Throw into this mix internal divisions within the DUP, with the hard liners probably restricting Peter Robinson’s ability to move and you begin to get a sense of the task at hand. Robinson referred to the opening of the latest round of Northern Ireland Talks as a “circus” and refused to attend on the opening morning. The DUP offered the attendance of the Irish Government as the excuse. A move no doubt prompted hard line elements in the DUP. With the DUP strategists guarding against any attacks from the TUV, the party is being pulled further to the right, far from the center ground where the only prospect of accommodation lies.
On the up side, some progress could be made on “flags”, with an agreement on “no flags on arterial routes” seemingly the easiest fix. But no guarantees there either. Dealing with the Past, Parading (Ardoyne), the Budget, Welfare cuts and restructuring of the institutions are simply not going to get resolved by these two parties at this time.
The Newsletter is a leading Belfast newspaper with a predominately PUL (Protestant, Unionist, Loyalist) readership. Today they ran an online poll on the current round of Northern Ireland talks, the poll has garnered over 2,000 responses so far. While online polls are a weak barometer, it is interesting to note 55% of the respondents feel the Northern Ireland talks will end in failure. A further 25% said they do not care. That means a huge 80% of respondents feel the talks will fail or they don’t care if they fail. That certainly points to a failure, not of the peace process, but the political process.
With failure a real prospect, the question will quickly become, what are the consequences of political failure at the Northern Ireland talks? The answer is simple, by name it will be known as Direct Rule, but in reality it will be de-facto Joint Authority. In other words, the British and Irish governments will meet regularly and jointly administer the territory. It’s an intriguing prospect, one in which Unionists will no longer be able to block initiatives such as the Irish Language Act. But we will have to talk about that another day.
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