Talks failure: some theories

23 February 2018 - by Gráinne Walsh

This week we heard from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that nearly one in three adults in Northern Ireland is out of work. The region has made no progress on poverty in a decade.

That lack of progress was mirrored in our politics as we started to assess the implications of the failure by Sinn Féin and the DUP to complete a deal to restore devolution at Stormont towards to the end of last week. 

There seems to be at least three theories, all variations on a theme, as to why the DUP called time on the talks process last week, the most common being that the negotiation team feared that it would not be able to sell the outcome to the broader party. It was an Irish Language Act too far.

The second iteration of this scenario is that the DUP’s Westminster team, in particular, felt that a deal wasn’t worth the compromise and that the party is well placed to exercise power without the devolved institutions, through the agreement with the Conservative Party. 

Moving ever closer to the conspiracy end of the spectrum, some commentators are asserting that pro-Brexit DUP MPs are undermining the two-decades old Good Friday/Belfast Agreement as it is recognised as the main barrier to a hard Brexit. Recent anti-Agreement statements by Brexiters Kate Hoey (a Belfast native) and former Northern Ireland Secretary of State Owen Paterson could send you down that particular track if you were inclined to follow it.

Some looking across the table to the new Sinn Féin leadership of Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill will tell you that republicans have no interest in a return to devolution in the North until the UK has exited the European Union and that they will continue to focus on gaining power in the Republic of Ireland, potentially entering into government after the next election. At this stage, Sinn Féin will be in a position to shape Anglo-Irish relations from a position of power within the Irish state.

Following a meeting with Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday, the Sinn Féin leadership’s assessment was that there was little in terms of a plan by the UK Government apart from the commitment from the Secretary of State Karen Bradley to provide clarification on a budget.

So, where are we now? We will get a budget, judicial reviews will begin to set the decision making parameters of the civil service and decisions will be made. But as we approach the 20th anniversary of the peace agreement, we cannot but be dismayed at one level.

On another level, however, there have been unprecedented public moments of constructive dialogue between political adversaries that are cause for optimism. The leaked draft agreement is a good starting point for new talks.

This article was first published by Public Affairs Weekly.