Alex Kane: Why any new talks process may already be doomed to failure

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Last November the then secretary of state, Karen Bradley (go on, admit it, you’ve totally forgotten about her), pushed through a bill to put off Assembly elections until March 2019; and in the absence of an agreement between the parties to push the election until August.

In July she pushed through another bill to put off elections until October; and in the case of continuing impasse between the DUP and Sinn Fein made provision for an election in January 2020. And that’s why her successor, Julian Smith, announced that a new talks process would begin on Monday December 16, four days after the general election.

The willingness of Arlene Foster to engage in a new talks process might depend on how her party fares in the general election

The willingness of Arlene Foster to engage in a new talks process might depend on how her party fares in the general election

Sinn Fein’s decision to do its first-ever party election broadcast entirely in Irish was a message to both the NIO and the two governments, as well as to the DUP: and that message was that any hope others might have that the party was prepared to row back on a stand-alone Irish language act (ILA) was a forlorn hope. I haven’t heard one statement, sentence or even throwaway ‘tease’ from anyone in Sinn Fein’s leadership which suggests the party would be prepared, if the circumstances were right, to give the DUP significant wriggle room on an ILA.

On January 9, 2017, Martin McGuinness crashed the Assembly. As I noted at the time, Arlene Foster’s response to the still-breaking RHI story (and nobody, including Sinn Fein, had any idea how big that story would become) was the primary hook upon which he hung his resignation and closing paragraph that “... Sinn Fein will not nominate to the position of deputy first minister. We now need an election ...”. But it was also clear from the full text of his resignation letter that there was a much bigger agenda in play: and my reckoning was a decision had already been reached by the party that the Assembly would be crashed and forced into an election at the first available opportunity.

Move on a year later, to February 2018, and the DUP crashed the ‘reboot’ deal which Sinn Fein was convinced had been signed off, including the ILA. The DUP continues to stand over its claim that nothing had been formally signed off, but there is certainly enough evidence to suggest (some of it from DUP personnel I spoke to at the time and since) that, in the words of one DUP source, “our negotiators had certainly given a nod of some sort to something very big on an ILA”. Meanwhile, the DUP continues with the line that it is prepared to reboot the Assembly at a ‘moment’s notice’ and is quite happy to discuss outstanding issues in a parallel talks process.

Julian Smith has already said what all secretaries of state say on the cusp of every new process: a lot has already been agreed and the “number of issues still to be agreed is relatively small”. That is right, albeit only in one sense: the number of issues still to be agreed is small. But the difficulty in resolving them is mountain-sized: and because we still cling to the crazy notion that ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,’ the un-agreed issues (most of which have remained un-agreed since the peace/political talks process began in earnest in the mid-1990s) will continue, at regular intervals, to produce another impasse and crisis-management circus.

Whether the latest round of talks gets off the ground on December 16 depends on a lot of things; not least of which is the election outcome on December 12. For example, if Boris Johnson secures a comfortable majority, doesn’t need the DUP and the DUP also loses seats and votes, then it will be a particularly difficult talks process for Foster. And if Sinn Fein doesn’t do as well as it thinks it will do (and, let’s not forget, it could lose Foyle, fail to dislodge Dodds and see Gildernew nudged aside by Tom Elliott in Fermanagh/South Tyrone), it becomes a similarly difficult process for O’Neill. Mood music is crucial in all talks processes and how Foster and O’Neill feel on the 16th will be key to the likelihood of success. If one feels particularly buoyant she might be very keen to see an Assembly election in a few weeks time.

There is a bigger question, though: one that hasn’t actually been addressed since the St Andrews negotiations in October 2006 (and even then it was an indirect rather than direct discussion). Do the DUP and Sinn Fein even want to cooperate with each other in common cause and for the common good of everyone in Northern Ireland? And just because they might sit down together in two weeks doesn’t mean that they agree on the answer to that question. Even pulling some sort of rabbit out of the hat and rebooting the Executive (which is more likely if both key parties don’t really fancy another election) doesn’t mean they agree on the answer to the question, either.

Now, while I accept that some key players in both the DUP and Sinn Fein were able to reach a political/personal/psychological modus vivendi and managed, albeit with increasing difficulty, to keep the show on the road at very difficult moments between May 2007 and December 2016, I also argued that relationships more broadly were very bad. I was of the opinion that their respective voting bases were becoming increasingly antagonistic and less supportive of the compromises necessary for progress. That grassroots antagonism hasn’t, I think, lessened. And, crucially, I don’t think there are enough key players willing to reach a new modus vivendi.

The biggest questions aren’t just about the legacy/political/constitutional/social/economic et al issues which need addressed and resolved. Sometimes the most important question is the most basic, simple question: which is, do enough people and politicians in Northern Ireland actually want to cooperate and share power anymore?