Alex Kane: breakdown in trust between DUP and SF means even talks are months away

Mary Lou McDonald and Sinn Fein were angry when the talks collapsed

Most people, even the nerds, are now bored with the oh-yes-you-did-oh-no-we-didn’t spat between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

They shouldn’t be bored. The failure of those two parties to cut a deal after 14 months is worrying. The failure to even agree on what was or wasn’t agreed is worrying. Leaving Northern Ireland without a government (with key decisions deferred or fudged) is worrying. The increasing polarisation is worrying. And since the ongoing failure and deepening impasse raises existential questions about the Good Friday Agreement (the 20th anniversary cake, champagne and speeches have been cancelled) and what comes next, everyone should be worried about the huge lumps of abandoned hope that now blot the political landscape.

In response to a question from Mark Carruthers on last Thursday’s The View, Nigel Dodds repeated the line the DUP has deployed since February 14: ‘The reality is that Arlene Foster and nobody in the DUP put forward for any kind of agreement the Irish language suggestions in any text because it was not agreed by her, by the party or anything else.’

Crucially, the DUP isn’t denying that an Irish language act was discussed; and if the drafts are an accurate reflection of those discussions then it is clear that Sinn Fein had strong grounds for believing/hoping that a deal was, as Brian Rowan described it, a ‘page turn’ away.

But what is missing is more important than the content of any draft we have seen. Sinn Fein has not been able to point to a sentence from the DUP, or name a person – on paper, text or email – saying, ‘We are now ready to recommend this deal/agreement to our party’.

That’s the line which would prove that the DUP had lied and were still lying.

No one in the DUP – and I have spoken to quite a few – has told me that a recommendation to agree a final deal was ever put to them; although some confirmed they were very worried about rumours they had heard of a ‘done deal’ embracing an ILA. (There’s a whole other story there about who began briefing and talking-up a breakthrough deal when it remained clear that an ILA remained unsellable at that point. Whoever it was and for whatever reason, did huge and maybe lasting damage)

What is clear, though, is that the DUP made an absolute dog’s dinner at key moments in the negotiation process. They’ve always known than a final deal – if there was to be a final deal – was dependent on an ILA. That’s why an ILA was discussed in detail. That’s why what would have been a difficult sell was bundled into a bigger package involving an Ulster-Scots Act and a Respect/Culture Act. That’s why Sinn Fein gave ground on the petition of concern and same-sex marriage. That’s why Edwin Poots spoke on The View a few weeks ago about difficult decisions for the DUP. And that’s why Sinn Fein were so angry when the talks collapsed.

Denying the existence of drafts and sweeping away difficult questions –only to find themselves embarrassed by the leaks to Mallie/Rowan – didn’t help their case among elements of their own grassroots and broader unionism. The line between ambiguity and an outright lie is proving to be a very fine one for the DUP at the moment.

Yet it’s worth remembering that Sinn Fein left the process last November because, according to Michelle O’Neill, “Sinn Fein is disappointed that after the last few weeks of negotiations it has ended in failure. We did our best to be flexible”.

But what was the difference between last November and this February? Why was Sinn Fein so convinced that the DUP were ready for a deal this time? Did the DUP only start talking about an ILA in January 2018? Did Sinn Fein misread the signs, overegg the pudding and misinterpret the body language? Did the DUP negotiators get carried away and – accidentally or deliberately – convey the impression they could sell an ILA; even though key DUP figures, including Foster, were still ruling out an ILA? Did a key figure in the DUP mislead or lie to Sinn Fein’s negotiators? Did Sinn Fein rush the DUP at the last minute, fearing, as Mary Lou McDonald said afterwards, that further delay would allow the ‘accommodation’ and potential deal to unravel? Hence the ‘deal breakthrough’ story on February 8?

Most of this is now academic, of course. In a tweet over the weekend Richard Bullick – a former DUP Spad and one of the most respected negotiators of the past decade – noted: ‘Whatever the exact truth of all of this will be forgotten, even by those who were ever interested, in a day or two. The longer lasting damage will be the unprecedented breach of trust by whoever leaked the documents.’

Richard is right. When negotiations can’t even begin with the expectation of trust and non-destructive leakage then it will take a long time to reboot any talks process. And nor can that process now begin in the absence of a clear commitment from the DUP that they will embrace and promote an ILA as part of a final deal.

In terms of negotiations we are in uncharted waters. Of the two big parties the DUP has been most damaged; so they need to sit down and make some pretty difficult decisions. Personally I don’t think putting both parties in the same room can now produce a deal. So that means we need new negotiating structures – something that will take months to sort out.

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