Sam McBride: an apparent, if modest, climb down by Sinn Fein

Sinn Fein's Northern Ireland leader Michelle O'Neill at Stormont yesterday
Sinn Fein's Northern Ireland leader Michelle O'Neill at Stormont yesterday

On looking at the facts, it is difficult to read what happened yesterday other than as a modest climb-down by Sinn Fein.

Since the break-up of the last round of Stormont talks in October, Sinn Fein has been the party most reluctant about re-entering the process.

It had called for an independent chair to restart the process, arguing that the government could not be seen as neutral in chairing the negotiations, particularly in circumstances where it depends on the DUP for its survival.

As recently as three weeks ago, senior Sinn Fein figure John O’Dowd said: “Another round of talks for talks sake have no political or public credibility. The focus must therefore be on the implementation of previous agreements...”

From Sinn Fein’s perspective, there was a logic to what Mr O’Dowd was saying. If the republican explanation of the current impasse is that past agreements have to be implemented for Stormont to return, then the very obvious question is: what is there to talk about, if the DUP say that they don’t accept that?

But the image of refusing to talk is difficult to explain to voters, particularly because it would be an historical anomaly. For decades it has either been unionism as a whole or a significant section of unionism which refused to engage in various talks processes. Those decisions – often accompanied by Ian Paisley’s theatrical denunciations of those talking – fed into an image of unionism as stubborn and unreasonable.

There remains little sense at Stormont that this process is likely to succeed. In those circumstances, why not go along with the process rather than potentially stand outside as an obvious party to blame?

The DUP will say that at the very least – even if the party was publicly open to accepting Sinn Fein’s demands, which it is not – talks are required to resolve other issues. One of the party’s primary concerns is now about securing a mechanism which will make it harder for one party to pull down Stormont and prevent anyone else from governing.

If the DUP concedes on something like the Irish language, which would cause restlessness among some of its members, it could then attempt to sell the fact that it had at least removed from Sinn Fein the possibility of ever again repeating this process.

But behind all of those considerations lies for each party a critical consideration: those who put them where they are. At some point, pressures in areas such as the health service or an unpopular direct rule administration may convince those voters to compromise in order to resurrect Stormont.

But for now there is little hint of that on the horizon.