A shadow assembly might now be the best way forward

Morning View
Morning View

It is impossible to say categorically that there will be no deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein in the coming months, give the unpredictability of recent events.

The parties seemed hopelessly far apart at points in early 2017, then close to a deal, then far apart again, then suddenly close in the autumn.

This year most pundits had written off the prospects of a deal until the parties, with almost no public warning, came right to the verge of a deal in February.

The bitterness after the collapse of that near agreement, and the raised but incompatible expectations among supporters of both parties, really does make a deal in 2018 now hard to envisage.

The British government has been so keen on securing an agreement at Stormont that it has often seemed weak.

That was so last night, when the secretary of state was interviewed on UTV after her statement in the House of Commons. Ms Bradley was sounding weary but also unfeasible in her optimism. She had just deferred a decision on MLAs’ pay.

The reason for this reticence is not hard to see. Sinn Fein clearly intends to create a major international row if London introduces direct rule. Dublin, in contrast to London’s weakness, has been clear in its pro nationalist stances on an Irish language act, direct rule and Brexit.

It has therefore given succour to republicans.

There is a possible way forward, to which Ms Bradley seems open, of a shadow Stormont that operates alongside and scrutinises direct rule. This is the only possible acceptable alternative to London-only direct rule.

We cannot await Sinn Fein approval for such a solution. They cannot stop Stormont for everyone and drive people who need to make a living out of local politics while SF pursue their wish lists by fair means or foul.

Clearly MLAs will have to suffer a pay cut if there is nothing for them to do. But if they can do work scrutinising ministers, that might well be the best way forward.