Let me begin by paraphrasing a meeting between Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, from The Final Problem; although, on this occasion, I want you to imagine it is a meeting between Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill.
“Pray take a chair. I can spare you five minutes if you have anything to say.’
“All that I have to say has already crossed your mind,” said she.
“Then possibly my answer has crossed yours?”
“You stand fast?”
That’s the reality of the ongoing talks process. Both sides know what the other thinks and both know that they’re heading for an inevitable Reichenbach ‘moment’. So no amount of talking is ever going to shift them from set positions, set attitudes, set perceptions and set grievances. The ‘Final Problem,’ in Northern Ireland terms, is whether Sinn Fein and the DUP; unionists and republicans; Protestants and Catholics; or British and Irish can ever, under any circumstances, cut a deal that withstands the first contact with centuries’ old realities here.
Let’s take Irish language as an example. In a piece written for Eamonn Mallie’s website (a site worth visiting, by the way), Sinn Fein’s former chairman, Declan Kearney, wrote: “So, let’s be clear. An Irish language act is about more than free-standing language legislation, albeit an essential requirement. The implementation of an act is central to parity of esteem, and proper, official acceptance of the Irish national identity in the North of Ireland. Nothing less than that minimum standard is acceptable in the 21st century. This defining challenge goes to the crux of resolving the political crisis and any political engagement between the parties and two governments.”
But an Irish language act will not resolve the political crisis, because, if it could, unionists would happily endorse one. If it could be resolved by more space being provided for statues of republican icons in the grounds of Stormont or Belfast City Hall, unionists would go the distance on that, too. If it could be resolved by curbing the number of Orange parades and Union Flags in July and August, I’m pretty sure most unionists could live with that. But the fact is this: no amount of trying to provide ‘parity of esteem’ for Sinn Fein’s agenda would result in a moment being reached at which Sinn Fein would say; “OK, that’s fine. That’s all we wanted. Let’s get on, now, with building a new era Northern Ireland in which we can work together in common cause and common purpose.”
Sinn Fein’s only goal is a united Ireland. It always has been and always will be. And because that is the case – and I fully accept their right to pursue that goal – it will always be the case that unionists will view every single jot, dot and tittle of Sinn Fein’s agenda with suspicion. In fairness, Sinn Fein – fully aware that the DUP has no interest in strengthening a republican agenda – will view every single jot, dot and tittle of the DUP agenda with suspicion.
The only thing Sinn Fein and the DUP can do now – because they know that the only thing available to them is a crisis-postponing deal, rather than a crisis-resolving deal – is to pursue their separate agendas in plain sight. And it must be in plain sight (which breaches the Machiavelli dictum that, ‘No enterprise is more likely to succeed than one concealed from the enemy until it is ripe for execution’) because that is the only way they can convince doubters and recruit supporters.
But, as we know, those agendas can never, ever, produce a genuine meeting of minds between the DUP and Sinn Fein. Nor, as it happens, would a meeting of minds be possible if it were the UUP and SDLP in the top dog positions. The Union versus Irish unity is a circle that cannot be squared.
And while the DUP and Sinn Fein pursue their separate agendas, separate goals strategy, it makes it increasingly difficult – maybe even impossible – for the so-called middle-ground manifestations of unionism and republicanism to survive. This is now a numbers game. Foster and O’Neill are focused on a border poll (which I think is inevitable, sooner rather than later), focused on maximising their head count and focused on ensuring no electoral hostages to fortune.
How can the SDLP and UUP compete in those circumstances? They can’t: which is why the UUP has taken such a hard stance on an Irish language act (“never, never, never, no compromise” etc) and why the SDLP has joined Sinn Fein’s call for a border poll.
Meanwhile, Alliance will bumble along (although, “getting too bloody comfortable with the Shinners at the moment,” as an east Belfast friend who voted for Naomi Long at the general election, put it to me last week); the Greens probably won’t grow; PBP will stagnate; and no new voices or vehicles will emerge anytime soon. So don’t be expecting, let alone banking on some sort of political/electoral breakthrough to alter the conditions or shift the present dynamics.
We are where we are. And where we are is a sitting room in Baker Street with two sworn enemies (I’ll leave to you to decide which is Holmes and which Moriarty) knowing that the ultimate showdown is now unavoidable.