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Deadlock in north needs to end

Wednesday, 12th June, 2019 5:02pm

Everybody who wishes Northern Ireland well wants the current talks to succeed. Fundamentally the price of failure would be to both further undermine decades of progress and leave Northern Ireland (NI) exposed during a new period of chaos and uncertainty in London.

The biggest problem in these talks is the extent to which parties appear reluctant to back-off positions which they have adopted over time and the reluctance to be seen to have compromised. The unwillingness to admit error or to reconsider strategies is always at the core of deadlock – and flexibility is always the only way to break free from the deadlock.

The issues involved are serious and the lack of basic trust between the two parties which have created this impasse cannot be underestimated. However these issues are nothing compared to those which we overcame in the past. Only if we can return to the way these negotiations were handled in the past will we have a chance of moving forward.

There have been many blockages and suspensions in the past, but this one has been unique in a number of ways. Most importantly the cause of the deadlock bears no relationship to the fundamental parts of the peace process and the reluctance of the governments to act with either urgency or ambition. There have been many claims of urgency but little evidence of it having any impact.

883 days ago the democratic institutions in Northern Ireland were collapsed because of a heating scheme. No amount of revisionism and holding up the importance of other issues can take away from the cold hard fact that the people of NI have been deprived of a voice on Brexit, on budget cuts, on equality issues, on the future of health and education because of a heating scheme which appears to have lost nowhere near the amount of money first claimed.

Rather than wait for an independent review to gather all evidence, and in light of an electoral opportunity, it was decided that representative institutions were to be side-lined. For most of the past two and a half years there has been an inexplicable reluctance to show genuine urgency and the issues and political circumstances to be addressed have continually changed.

During most of this time, my party’s position has been the need to convene genuinely inclusive talks which respect the full range of political views in NI and which see the governments accept their responsibility to lead the process.

Unfortunately the decision to not try anything new until after the planned Brexit date of 31 March has meant that we are today at a moment of great uncertainty – with the return of stability or basic commitment to NI in London at very best uncertain.

The current talks are very welcome.

It appears that by ending the complete dominance of the talks by the chief antagonists there has at least been space for the dis-satisfied majority in NI to have its voice heard.

The destructive cycle of bi-lateral exchanges has thankfully been abandoned and there is an opportunity for new ideas to be tabled and for the largest parties to be challenged.

The issues which are today stated as being the reason for the largest parties failing to agree are absolutely important. Equality is not something which should be negotiated, it should simply be delivered.

The DUP’s reluctance to allow the people of Northern Ireland to have the same rights as are enjoyed by people in every other part of these islands undermines their core position on most other issues. Equally their use of the petition of concern in order to block equality measures is an absolute abuse of a measure intended to protect minorities against discrimination.

What has poisoned relations on these issues has been the perception that they have stopped being cross-community issues and have started to be presented as party issues.

When Deputy Adams described the equality agenda as “the Trojan horse of the republican movement” he caused immense damage – and so too has been the way in which these issues have been brought in and out of the agenda depending on what suits one party at a particular moment.

The fact that issues which were irrelevant to the collapse of the institutions are now presented as the only reason for the collapse is widely understood as party tactics rather than a sincere commitment to the issues themselves.

On the other hand, the childish and profoundly insulting approach of some within the DUP to cultural and linguistic diversity has caused real damage which remains in spite of a welcome apology by the DUP leader.

It would mark a major step forward if the largest parties were to candidly admit their roles in the deadlock and to accept that some of their actions have caused real hurt and division.

Fundamentally these talks cannot succeed if the largest parties are motivated by wanting to either claim a win or to avoid admitting to changing anything in their positions. Last week’s so-called ‘intensification’ of talks lasted 25 minutes and apparently simply heard reasons why there would be no flexibility.

We have to break this cycle of entrenched positions and regular breakdowns and the only way to do this is for those parties to be willing to take a risk on a new approach.

The fact is that a simple restoration of the Assembly and Executive would, even if for a limited period, at a minimum allow the democratic voice of the people to be heard. Let the Assembly majority have a voice against Brexit, against cutbacks to schools and health services and in favour of equality and diversity. How could this possibly do anything other than mark a positive development?

It requires other moves before legal measures can be implemented, but the democratic legitimacy behind these policies would be a powerful demonstration of the will to move forward.

Of course the contest for leadership of the Tory Party and of the British government is a new obstacle to progress. With the sole exception of one candidate who apparently has little or no chance, the comments of leadership contenders relating to Ireland have been in equal parts superficial and ill-informed.

They have yet to address the fact that their policy priority of Brexit has real consequences for this island – consequences which cannot be wished away, as the British Home Secretary put it yesterday, “by closing your eyes, picking up some magic beans and believing in Britain”.

We cannot allow the next few months to be lost because of a London-derived paralysis. It falls to our Government to insist that there is a genuine urgency in the meetings. That alternative strategies and policies are allowed to be discussed.

And that parties be obliged to address the scale of public disquiet concerning budget cuts and decisions imposed by British ministers.

These talks can’t be suspended. They must be kept going and the public must be given honest accounts of what has been considered. We need an end to the system of duelling briefings from the largest parties which have been the only sources of information on discussions.

It is unfortunately necessary to reply to the constant harping which has been heard here from one party seeking to silence others in the Dáil by claiming that we have no right to speak about the north. Leaving aside the twisted mind-set which this involves, we have every right to speak here about these issues.

In the face of incredible provocation, over many years we showed our determination to work for peace and development. We weren’t told to butt out when one party here was constantly calling and asking us to intervene.

I don’t remember being told to stay quiet when I was co-chairing all-party talks in NI – and when I was delivering sustained progress in those and other talks.

The problem in this house is that over the past eight years a habit developed of only talking about the north when there is a crisis, such as the appalling murder of Lyra McKee.

The issue in not that people should butt-out, it is that it falls to everyone here to challenge the right of others to control the debate on NI.

Enormous damage has been caused by the absence of democratic institutions in Northern Ireland since January 2017. It’s long past time for the people elected to serve in democratic institutions to be allowed to get to work.

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