A good story bears repetition. Tommy Trinder – a hugely popular figure on the comedy circle in the 1940s/60s – told this one:
“I was driving home one evening, rounded a corner and came across a huge tree which must just have fallen and was blocking the road. I sat in the car for a few minutes wondering what to do and trying to remember if I had passed a phone box or RAC box in the last half mile or so. A few other cars were pulling up behind me and I was chatting to the drivers about what we could do, maybe even see if a few of us could shift enough of the branches to move past and get driving again. And then I heard a loud beeping noise. It went on and on for about five minutes. So I walked round the corner and passed about 10 other cars until I found the culprit. I knocked the driver’s window; I tell you what mate, I’ll sit in there and beep the horn for you while you go round the corner and see if you can budge the bloody big tree which is preventing any of us from moving forward.”
I was reminded of the story a few days ago when an MLA said to me: “You’re very good at the criticism, Alex, but where’s your plan for getting the process up and running again?” A fair question.
I reminded him that in March 2017, three days after the Assembly election, I had sat in a BBC studio (with a number of politicians and commentators) and put forward such a plan. It boiled down to this: accept that the primary responsibility of the Executive/Assembly is to take charge of the governing departments and make key decisions on health, education, welfare policy, infrastructure etc by implementing an agreed Programme for Government. The mere willingness to do that sends a very clear signal that, irrespective of other problems and divisions, the parties are actually capable of working together in the collective common interests of all the people of Northern Ireland.
But I acknowledged that there were some very ‘big ticket’ issues which would still need to be addressed rather than just kicked into the long grass. My suggestion for that was a rebooting of something like the Civic Forum.
Every six months a group of experts would be brought together to consider just one specific issue from the Executive (legacy, culture, language, integration and so on). At the end of the six months they would submit a report to the Executive which would, in turn, pass it to the relevant Assembly committee for consideration and questioning.
In the lifetime of an Assembly it would be possible to tackle four or five of the ‘big ticket’ issues. I wasn’t suggesting that they would necessarily be resolved in that timescale but, at the very least, everyone would be much better informed on those issues than they are now.
I’ve argued many, many times, that the ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’ approach to negotiations is, to put it bluntly, pretty stupid. It will never be possible to reach agreement on everything in the timeframe available. That’s why ‘constructive ambiguity’ was built into the Good Friday Agreement (and later incorporated into the Parliamentary act); and it was done like that because there was a hope that a few years of working together would inculcate a sense of trust between the parties and allow them to return to outstanding problems and solve them more easily.
As we know, it didn’t work out like that. Which is why other agreements, the Stormont House Agreement and Fresh Start being the most recent, barely got off the ground.
Regular readers will know that I wasn’t surprised when the last talks process collapsed in February. Even when it was announced that Mrs May and Leo Varadkar were on their way to Belfast I was saying that I was detecting no evidence whatsoever that the DUP had secured agreement across the party for a deal which included an Irish language act at that point.
I wrote this in my News Letter column on February 12, two days before the collapse: ‘For the life of me I still don’t understand how a mutually acceptable deal is possible on an Irish language act ...The worst thing they (DUP/SF) can do now is push the pieces of the jigsaw together and hope that it somehow morphs into a coherent whole ... (but) my overall assessment remains relentlessly gloomy.’
I don’t see how you move a tree by adding more branches to it; nor how you hope to move forward if you’re already digging a series of potholes on the road ahead while the tree is still blocking general access. To paraphrase Louis MacNeice: ‘deal with the authentic mammon and leave the bogus gods until later.’
The political institutions are in place. The MLAs are elected. The departmental structures are there – and functioning after a fashion. The 2016 Programme for Government has barely been touched and could, reasonably easily, be returned to. I don’t think it would really be all that difficult to put an Executive in place and it would certainly inject much-needed public confidence into politics here.
The Civic Forum reboot has merit. OK parties won’t get some things immediately, but at least there would be serious, detailed, costed discussion, followed by a report which the Assembly and other interested groups would be able to discuss and add to afterwards.
One thing is certain, though: a deal which is struck just between the DUP and SF is likely to unravel if the support bases of either party discover that there are elements of it which they knew nothing about. Ultimately, of course, the tree will only be removed when everyone puts their shoulder to it in a collective act of trust and genuine cooperation. Beep! Beep!