The Northern Ireland peace/political process is, in essence, just another reality TV show. It started off so well 20 years ago; lots of excitement and hoopla, flexible rules, surprises, unexpected guests and a cliffhanger before every commercial break. Huge audiences tuned in to see old enemies shake hands and attempt to build a new relationship together.
But like all reality TV shows this particular format is grinding to an end. Audiences are clearly more interested in soggy-bottomed buns, foxtrots and talentless, tone-deaf singers who would need a magnet and a telescope to find the right key. The contestants haven’t changed since 1998 and nor have their attitudes and sound bites. Every episode is precisely the same and even shifting the annual crisis to the beginning of the year rather than the three months before Christmas hasn’t done anything to improve the ratings. James Brokenshire was supposed to have brought something new to the mix, but so far all he has done is bore the audience into submission.
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago we’re at the choreography section again. But the key players’ movements are now so laboured and predictable the only thing which could make it interesting would be the ‘elephant in the room’ pooping over all of them before sitting on leaders and spokesmen at random intervals. Having spent months setting out red lines, deadlines, preconditions and put downs, they’re all pretending that a last-minute deal is possible.
What they’re hoping, of course, is that enough of us will be conned into watching their weekly antics rather than switching off, tuning out and searching for a banana republic which is less embarrassing and farcical than what passes for politics here.
Is a deal possible? Of course. Never underestimate the power of self-interest and the lure of titles and regular cheques. Is a lasting deal possible: by which I mean one that would free an Executive from inherent crises and allow it to address and resolve the ‘big ticket’ issues? Nope. There’s more chance of me re-growing my hair and being mistaken for Kim Kardashian than there is of that sort of deal.
Such a deal is not possible because of what I’m calling the ‘nursery rhyme conundrum.’ Do any of you remember Soldier, Soldier, Will You Marry Me? A girl asks a soldier to marry her, but he declines because he has no coat.
Well, having given him a coat, followed by shoes, socks and a hat, she asks him again; to which he replies, “Oh no, pretty maid, I cannot marry you, for I have a wife at home.”
That’s our problem. Both Sinn Fein and the DUP are already married to other partners (as are the UUP and SDLP). So, no matter what they give to each other or buy for each other, their relationship can never be a permanent one. Michelle doesn’t want to be married to Arlene in Northern Ireland, quite apart from the fact that the existing law in NI doesn’t permit same sex marriage! (that’s a joke, by the way, so you don’t need to text, email or write to the editor); and Arlene doesn’t want to be married to Michelle in a united Ireland. They can never build a happy home together, let alone plan a shared future.
That shouldn’t stop them from working together to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland have a good health service, education system, economy and infrastructure et al. Irrespective of their present constitutional status—or whatever feelings they have about their own identity—people still require medical support when they’re ill and the right sort of school to meet their particular needs. Cancer cells and brain cells make no distinction between republicans and unionists.
The other problem we have is that we’re still hobbled with the ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’ approach to every talks process. That’s a fundamentally stupid and very damaging approach to take. A hospital waiting list isn’t going to shrink while the parties search for a solution to legacy/culture/identity/constitutional problems. Slashing budgets for schools isn’t going to be halted or reversed while we squabble over the extent to which the Irish language should be used in politics, courts and road signs.
There is nothing, and I really do mean nothing, to prevent an all-party agreement on a limited and targeted programme for government by the end of September.
There is nothing to stop local ministers making decisions on key issues. There is nothing to prevent all-party talks continuing below-the radar, allowing the parties to hone in on potentially difficult issues and providing solutions before a problem becomes a crisis.
And there is nothing to prevent a rebooted version of the civic forum from providing regular reports (sourced from research, experts, academics, etc) on the ‘big ticket’ stuff that tends to polarize the parties more than anything else.
None of these ideas are new: I first suggested them in March. If the DUP and Sinn Fein want to provide government then they know what they need to do. Given the ‘nursery rhyme conundrum’ it can never be perfect or entirely normal government; that said, it should be better than we have now. And if they can’t agree? Stuff the elephant with chocolate, ice cream and popcorn and allow nature to do the rest.