Deal or no deal ... either way we are left with a lamentable choice

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I really wish I could work up something resembling excitement for what may or may not be a new deal.

The Stormont House Agreement fell apart in 2015; the Fresh Start revamp barely got off the starting blocks; the joint excitement of the Foster/McGuinness article in November 2016 crumbled to dust a few weeks later; and we’ve been left hanging for almost a year while the DUP and Sinn Fein whinge and bitch about what does or doesn’t constitute a red line.

That said, I wrote a few months ago that a deal still seemed more likely than not, “albeit a deal that won’t be strong, stable, consensual or genuinely cooperative – in other words, the best it can hope to be will be no more than a sticking plaster deal from sticking plaster politicians”.

What we do know is that we’ve reached the dance-off stage of the choreography, performed to the background track of: “Let her go, let her tarry, let her sink without a prayer; she doesn’t care for me and I don’t care for her.” The DUP need a deal that doesn’t make Sinn Fein look stronger, while closing down potentially destabilising problems further down the line. And Sinn Fein need a deal that reassures their base that Arlene Foster has been punished for her ‘crocodile’ comments, while further reassuring them that the unity project remains firmly on course.

What they have in their favour is a lack of serious rivals. The SDLP and UUP are weak – and certainly don’t want another election that will drain their coffers and expose their lack of a credible alternative to the Foster/O’Neill impasse. And London and Dublin have no desire, separately or jointly, to take hands-on responsibility for running Northern Ireland. They already have enough on their plates with the Brexit negotiations, without Adams and Foster knocking their doors every other day.

The DUP has to be particularly careful at the moment. Yes, they can refuse to reboot the Executive because they reckon that key elements of their vote won’t support a deal that embraces anything of substance on Irish language or same-sex-marriage; but they have no guarantee that, in the event of real or soi-disant direct rule, the government wouldn’t legislate for those things, anyway. Also, they can’t assume that they can always play the parliamentary version of the ‘Danegeld’ card against Theresa May. For starters, she may not be there for much longer; and I’m pretty sure the Conservative chief whip will say, sooner than they expect, “That’s fine, guys, but do you really want to bring us down and risk a Corbyn government?”

For all her tough talking – although it does tend, unlike Peter Robinson’s approach, to be far more tin-eared than nuanced – I’m pretty sure that Arlene Foster doesn’t want to be the unionist leader who collapses Stormont.

At the back of her mind is Northern Ireland’s centenary in 2021 and Foster (who has already established and leads a committee to oversee the celebrations) would like to be the undisputed leader of unionism at the time. Which means she’d like to be first minister in an Assembly which has rebuilt an internal unionist majority and is regarded as effective by a clear majority of the overall electorate. So she will be aware that allowing the Assembly to continue in limbo could, quickly and unexpectedly, tip it over an edge from which it will be enormously difficult to climb back again.

I’m still not sure of Sinn Fein’s position. Back in January I wrote that it may be planning for a post-Assembly scenario, because ‘instability probably suits their unity agenda’. A stable Assembly and stable Northern Ireland doesn’t do Sinn Fein any favours in terms of persuading the ‘soft nationalist/unionist’ vote they would need to deliver unity. But – and it’s an important but – the unity project becomes more difficult for those on the southern side of the border if unionism looks truculent and potentially very troublesome. Put bluntly, the political establishment in Dublin doesn’t want responsibility for hundreds of thousands of angry, displaced unionists. So, Sinn Fein may still view an Assembly as of continuing use to their end goal.

And there’s the problem, of course: unionists and republicans will, assuming they cut a deal, still want the Assembly for entirely different reasons. Which means that if it is restored it will still be rooted in instability, hostility, competing agendas and contradictory end goals. Not exactly sufficient cause for the people – irrespective of party/constitutional allegiance – to breathe a sigh of relief and prepare for a new era of harmony and good government.

The key thing about a deal, though – and in some ways it won’t matter if it’s good or bad one – is that most people and parties fear a vacuum. They may not be particularly fond of the Assembly, yet the line, “it’s better than it used to be here,” resonates with them.

There are elements on both sides that remain armed and active and in a Northern Ireland which strikes me as increasingly polarised there is genuine fear that institutional collapse would trigger bloody consequences. Even direct rule was described to me by a very senior Conservative as, “just another vacuum, Alex and just as dangerous”.

Here’s the lamentable choice on offer: a deal that cannot last and will not work; or no deal at all and a possible return to violence.