Round and round and round we go 
to end in a mess of chaos and farce

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Circumbendibus is a wonderful, albeit obsolete word. It means a wandering story or journey, which starts nowhere and ends in chaos or farce; which, more or less, sums up last week’s political progress.

After 11 months of negotiations the DUP and Sinn Fein couldn’t even agree on what had, or hadn’t, been agreed between them. The Good Friday Agreement was built on constructive ambiguity; St Andrews added destructive clarity; and now we have corrosive amnesia.

Both parties are saying they won’t put anything in the public domain, because it would only make it more difficult to reboot talks at a later stage: yet both are already doing irreparable damage to any future talks by mostly accusing each other of lying.

The only thing we know for certain is that the breakdown centres on an Irish language act (ILA) – and whether or not the DUP had agreed to one. Arlene Foster says they didn’t. What is not so clear, however, is whether the DUP gave serious consideration to an act at any point during lengthy negotiations and, in so doing, conveyed the impression that they ‘were up’ for trying to sell it to their party and wider unionism. So it would help if the public could see the paper trail – from both sides – on what was discussed on that specific issue.

As far back as last March, a few days after the Assembly election, I argued that an ILA would be ‘extraordinarily difficult’ to sell to unionists. As recently as last Monday’s News Letter – when a supposed deal was said to be just hours away – I wrote: ‘For the life of me I still don’t understand how a mutually acceptable deal is possible on an ILA. (It) strikes me as unacceptable to the broadest swathe of unionism; so unacceptable, in fact, that I can’t imagine they’d be bought off with legislation promoting Ulster-Scots language and culture. They are not like-for-like issues.’

The other reason I reckoned the DUP weren’t bending on an ILA was that there was no evidence of a softening of their approach to it; and no evidence they were preparing their MLAs to sell it. Indeed, a number of DUP members contacted me between Thursday 8th (when the story broke the PM and taoiseach were coming on Monday) and Sunday 11th, wondering, as one of them put it, “what the heck is going on?”

The general impression – and again, we don’t know how much is accurate – is that the DUP’s negotiating team were forced out of the talks because of the reaction of key figures on their own side to what was being reported: namely, that the DUP were preparing to back-pedal on an ILA. Yet Gregory Campbell, who fronted for the party for most of the crucial period immediately before and after the collapse, insisted that no deal, accommodation, draft deal or agreement had been agreed by the party on an ILA.

But if that is the case, then why didn’t the DUP just tell Sinn Fein to release the details of what Mary Lou McDonald had described as the ‘accommodation’? Why didn’t they insist May and Varadkar stay away because nothing had been mutually agreed on an ILA? Why didn’t they issue a clear statement to the media last Monday morning that there was ‘nothing to see here’? Whatever was going on in the background, the impression remained between Thursday 8th and lunchtime on Monday 12th, that a deal could/would be cut. Was the impression fuelled by the NIO, by Dublin, by Sinn Fein, by briefings from elements of the DUP? I genuinely don’t know.

Today we’re in a mess. Relations between the DUP and SF are worse than ever. May and Varadkar were left looking stupid. The DUP has been damaged: and will remain damaged until irrefutable evidence is presented by them that they weren’t – unknown to key elements on their own side – in serious negotiation with SF on an ILA. The chances of an Assembly in place before the 20th anniversary of the GFA look remote. The chances of the DUP and SF being able to stitch together enough trust to reboot negotiations anytime soon look even more unlikely.

So, what happens next? If SF has solid, demonstrable proof that a DUP-approved ILA was on the table, then they won’t be backing down at future negotiations. If either/both of these parties has been seen to be lying – and I’m pretty sure we’ll have a few weeks of intensive briefings and counter-briefings, along with serial leaking of documents – it will put their leadership teams and negotiating teams under intense pressure.

And it’s worth noting, although it went mostly unnoticed because of the ILA debacle,that many other issues remain unresolved, including the petition of concern, long-term sustainability of the institutions and same-sex marriage. It’s worth noting, because they weren’t resolved at previous negotiations, either.

One final point. There has been evidence in recent years that the leadership of DUP/SF has been prepared to take a few risks during negotiations. Crucially, though, there is also evidence that the grassroots of those parties don’t want them to take those risks and reach new compromises. That may explain why the DUP had to withdraw last week. It may also explain why SF collapsed everything last January. And, of course, it explains why a new deal remains as elusive as ever.