We need experts in dysfunction like Jerry Springer or Judge Judy to sort out our mess

I was one of the commentators on The View on Thursday evening, when John O'Dowd and Gregory Campbell were discussing the fallout from the failure to reach a deal.They were in different cities.

Monday, 6th November 2017, 3:31 pm
Updated Tuesday, 12th December 2017, 8:29 am
Alex Kane

They may as well have been in different and parallel universes.

Campbell was of the opinion that the negotiations could be rebooted the following morning; yet O’Dowd seemed to think that ‘this phase’ of the negotiations had ended when James Brokenshire announced his intention to legislate for a budget within a few weeks.

What the interview confirmed was something I have been saying for months now; namely, the division between the parties is a chasm rather than a gap.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

For all of the briefings – from Sinn Fein and the DUP, as well as the two governments – that progress had been made and differences narrowed, it seemed pretty clear that the parties had been talking at, rather than to, each other.

Indeed, so far apart did they remain, that they weren’t even bothering to pretend that something could be cobbled together anytime soon. They couldn’t even bother trying to be civil to each other.

So, why do some of the key players in Belfast, Dublin and London, continue with the delusion that this mess can be sorted out this side of the Twelfth of Never? Why do they refuse to face reality and just admit that they don’t, in fact, want to work together?

Naomi Long, who was also on The View, seemed to think that everything would be hunky-dory because the gaps really were narrow and all that was lacking was “the will” to do the deal. Nail on head, Naomi; nail on head.

The ‘will’ isn’t there. The ‘will’ to construct and conclude a consensual, stable, genuinely cooperative power sharing deal isn’t there. Lack of ‘will’ is the beginning and end of the problem.

Let’s be honest, if the ‘will’ was there, then it would be easy enough to stitch something together.

If the DUP and Sinn Fein truly believed that the Assembly would serve the needs of Northern Ireland and the interests of their individual voter base, then they would kick-start the executive. They were able to do it under much more difficult circumstances in 2007; and they also kept the show on the road through a number of crises in the last decade. So, why not now?

Well, on this occasion it has become increasingly obvious that it is voter bases who are calling a halt. I can’t imagine that there’s a single DUP or SF voter who voted in March or June in the hope that their party would compromise and ‘make it easier’ for the other side to cut a deal with them. The opposite is the case.

It was the Sinn Fein’s grassroots – unhappy with the DUP generally and Arlene Foster in particular – who grabbed the unexpected opportunity provided by RHI and the death of Martin McGuinness and told the leadership that they weren’t happy with the status quo. And it was the DUP grassroots – galvanised by detestation of Gerry Adams – who made it clear that they wouldn’t endorse any deal that enhanced and promoted the Irish language, along with a number of other items on Sinn Fein’s ‘pro-unity agenda’.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that parties can take the greatest risks when they have their bases fully behind them; and when there is also general support for the institutions at the heart of the deal.

What is probably disturbing the two big parties most– indeed, it’s disturbing all of the parties – is that support for the institutions is hanging on a very slender thread. People are already thinking post-Assembly.

The last ten months has reminded them, not of how much they miss the Assembly, but of how big a mess the previous Assembly left behind.

The problems they are aware of in health, education, housing, welfare, social service provision et al are not the product of ten months without an executive: they are the product of ten years of weak, dithering, dysfunctional government.

Government so bad, in truth, that very few people believe its return would make a damn bit of difference to their everyday lives.

The deal both parties would have to sell to the electorate needs two key elements: it must reassure their bases that no ground has been given or lost; and it must persuade the broader electorate that the insipid, indecisive government of the past decade has been replaced with something much more effective.

In other words, it’s not enough this time to think they can get away with the usual old guff, accompanied by the usual old platitude about fresh starts and better relationships. People are no longer afraid of life without an Assembly, because they have no residual loyalty to the previous Assemblies.

Is such a deal possible? Nope. That won’t stop them trying, though; and nor will it hinder the likelihood of another grotesque political nonsense being inflicted upon us, sooner rather than later.

Meanwhile, the British and Irish governments, who don’t want responsibility, either singly or together, for running the place, will pay almost any price to get the executive up and running.

They’re probably sounding out an ‘outside intermediary’ as I’m writing this. I wonder if Jerry Springer, Jeremy Kyle or Judge Judy – experts on the congenitally dysfunctional – is free?