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The Parliament Building, Stormont, in Belfast. PA

Brian Rowan Northern Ireland cannot continue with pantomime politics and a pretend parliament

The former BBC correspondent looks back at a year of turmoil and persistent deadlock in Northern Irish politics.

LAST UPDATE | 30 Dec 2022

THE SHOUT FROM the other side of the road was about the frozen footpath and the absence of grit.

And, the gist of the comment directed towards me, was along these lines: “You should be reporting on this.”

All politics is local.

In the North, it is rarely sure-footed, and is often frozen. Footpaths can be far away from the frontline arguments.

For much of 2022, Stormont operated without an Executive.

There is nothing new about that. It is part of an all too familiar pattern.

At another level, it was the year of three British Prime Ministers – Boris Jonson, Liz Truss and, now, Rishi Sunak.

In Dublin, the political furniture has also been rearranged – Leo Varadkar back as Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, Tanaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Simon Coveney, part of the last rescue mission at Stormont alongside then Secretary of State Julian Smith, has moved to Enterprise, Trade and Employment.

That bitterly cold night in January 2020, when he and Smith announced their New Decade, New Approach agreement on Stormont’s hill, ended a three-year freeze; saved politics from its purgatory.

That same old picture

Yet, here we are again, turning a page into a New Year and looking at an old picture. That same old picture.

The brokenness of Stormont, this time part of the post-Brexit fallout, with a sea border for Great Britain to Northern Ireland trading arrangements, that in unionist minds makes this place different from the rest of the United Kingdom.

It’s about the Union.

This is why the DUP has been standing outside the Northern Ireland Executive.

The UK and EU are back in talks.

Depending on their outcome, the focus will come back to Stormont, but no one should believe that the politics of here, its problems, are anywhere near the highest priority. They are not.

Late into 2022, there was talk of another election to the Assembly, but it also slipped and is still skating on our frozen political ground.

Another election, without rules, would change nothing.

Rules such as a date for nominations to the Executive, and consequences if nominations do not happen. No salary. No Stormont.

We can’t continue with pantomime politics and a pretend parliament.

In another waiting room

So, we are waiting for the outcome of those UK/EU talks.

Recently, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stepped into the Northern Ireland conversation and argument when he met party leaders in a hotel outside Belfast on 15 December.

Five of the parties were represented, given short notice of the Sunak visit and his intention to speak with them.

This was not a meeting intended to achieve any breakthrough or thaw. More an introduction, knowing that the bigger decisions are further down the road.

The conversations happened with all of them in the same room. Sunak spoke with them one by one.

“You couldn’t overhear the other conversations,” one of those present commented. “There was lots of chat in the room.”

But we all know the issues – those deepest trenches and frontline battles relating to the sea border, unionist concern about the Union and the constitutional position, and how to achieve working politics through a restored Executive.

Then, the issues that really matter in the here and now. A health service under huge pressure, nurses and other workers on strike, the cost of living crisis and when and how support payments to help with energy costs will be made.

These are the things on which votes depend – how the parties will be judged when that next election happens.

Understanding Northern Ireland

One source, present at the hotel meeting, described Sunak as “friendly, charismatic, chatty” – the Prime Minister just seven years after being elected as an MP.

Understanding Northern Ireland can take 70 years – perhaps longer.

It is once again an unsettled place. Old certainties gone. The euphoria of the political agreement of ’98 a distant memory.

In a few months’ time, how will its 25th anniversary be marked? Will there be working politics by then?

Who knows?

Can there be political stability in the North with that other question – Union or Unity – unanswered?

How long will it take before that question is asked in a border poll?

Why did Sunak step into this maze of uncertainty at this time?

A play for time

He was obviously persuaded that it was worthwhile, needed – but persuaded by whom?

A couple of months ago, we were expecting NI Secretary of State Chris Heaton- Harris to announce a date for an Assembly election; then, there was an embarrassing, muddled, late decision to play for time.

The suggestion was that Sunak had stepped in.

That election would have been back into the mess. There would have been no point in that. Thus, the delay.

Then, the visit. It looks like the pace and play in relation to Northern Ireland is being determined in London and linked to those UK/EU talks.

Some time, but not wasted time

London no longer has the energy or enthusiasm or time that former British PM Tony Blair had for here.

The peace process is an old trophy.

The outstanding challenge is how to break the mould of conflict politics. End that war.

Think of Sunak’s priorities right now – Ukraine, energy supply and security, the UK economy, trade and how to survive the next UK General Election.

All of these things sit well above Stormont.

If the UK/EU negotiations arrive at a deal, then, the question will be asked of the DUP.

Stormont, or not?

Sunak will give some time to here, but not wasted time.

There comes the point of decision, when the tail is no longer allowed to wag the dog.

One chance

There is an important point articulated by a source: “Once the deal [UK/EU] is done, there won’t be another go at it.”

If Sunak can convince the Conservative Party of the worth of any deal, then, that will be it.

At some point, he may have to tell our political leaders that this is the way it works – as good as it gets.

The biggest players in this negotiation are not in Belfast. This will happen or not happen at another level.

Politics on a high wire.

It has been there before.

Brian Rowan is a former BBC correspondent in Belfast and an author on the peace process. His latest book Living with Ghosts was recently published by Merrion Press.

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