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Brian Rowan: Can the parties of Northern Ireland truly make it work this time?

The former BBC correspondent says the signs of compromise are not good as another deadline looms for Stormont.

Brian Rowan

Updated Oct 7th 2022, 11:59 AM

POLITICS IN THE North is often a story of elastic deadlines – dates for doing things that are often stretched.

We are in one of those waiting rooms right now… waiting to see if 28 October really is a decision day.

Before this month is out, NI Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris might have to decide whether to send the Stormont parties to yet another election – this a consequence of our once-more broken politics.

He says he will do so if there’s not a fully-functioning Stormont Executive by then.

But will he, or will the date disappear as so many others have?

We wait to see.

DUP holding firm

In the long saga of the post-Brexit Irish Sea border row, the DUP is refusing to nominate for the position of deputy First Minister.

They are no longer the largest party at Stormont.

It means that the joint office at the top of the Executive can’t function. So, Michelle O’Neill remains First Minister designate.

For now, that date in October – the 28th – is the deadline to try to fix things.

On the political calendar, there are not many days left to do so. Not if the DUP holds to its line on the sea border – an issue for them that is much bigger than the new post-Brexit trading arrangements.

It is about the Union itself and Northern Ireland’s place and status within it.

One of the party’s senior figures, former short-time leader Edwin Poots, raised the possibility of a funeral for the Good Friday Agreement in its 25th anniversary year of 2023 if the issue of the Protocol is not resolved and there is no government.

More a wake than a celebration.

But that comment triggered another thought in my head; that in such circumstances another line would be written into the long obituary of the Union.

The idea of a British Government-only decision-making process in Northern Ireland is not the real world. Not anymore.

The ‘New Ireland’ conversation would get louder.

A sense of losing

Perhaps change is the real crisis in Northern Ireland.

That it is not just about the sea border. There is this wider script, seen in the electoral trend since 2017.

Unionists have lost their overall Stormont majority. Their second seat in the European Parliament in the 2019 election.

The results of the UK General Election in that same year mean they no longer hold a majority of NI seats at Westminster.

And Sinn Féin is now the largest party at Stormont. Some can’t cope with that change.

What would happen if the secretary of state decided on another election in just a few weeks’ time – stuck to the date on his calendar?

An election when so many people will be cold in their homes, struggling to put food on the table, to pay mortgages, to breathe in this cost-of-living crisis. And with Christmas and its costs to think about.

How would the party-blocking government perform against that backdrop?

The broken glass of Brexit

The story of recent years is of damaged relationships – the shattered and scattered pieces of Brexit.

Broken glass cutting deep.

Goodwill bleeding out of the relationships that have gotten us this far.

Internal NI relations damaged, North-South, East-West.

When you break the template, you break the process.

Look also at the turmoil within the Conservative Party and the DUP in recent years. The number of leaders; Cameron, May, Johnson, Truss – Foster, Poots, Donaldson.

In the here and now, in the mess that they have made, you would imagine elections there or here would be the last thing on their minds.

Not that they would admit to that.

In all the noise of now, two sounds were heard above all else in recent days; cans being kicked down the road, and a penny dropping.

There has been a clear attempt to de-escalate things, change the language, make a better mood. Try to find some trust. Start the talking again – UK-Europe and UK-Ireland.

We’ve all heard the new and measured words. Seen the pictures. Yes, the gaps on the Protocol are what they were – still wide.

But negotiation is never about getting everything you want. It is about compromise and making a deal. Leaving no side without its bus fare home. It is about governments knowing their rank – and taking charge.

That’s what the then NI Secretary of State Julian Smith and Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney did in the talks that saved Stormont in their agreement of 2020.

It is what the governments and Europe must do now.

That’s the real world. How politics works.

None of this will be done in a hurry.

Not before 28 October.

There’s a decision to be made by the DUP.

If it is to continue to block the Executive, then there is a decision for the NI Secretary of State.

A winter election, with all its cold and costs.

Who wins? Who loses?

There is also a bigger question.

Can we have political stability while in the waiting room of that other question – Union versus Unity?

We don’t know when it will be asked or what the answer will be.

But it is part of the everyday conversation now. Brexit has shattered the old certainties.

Brian Rowan is a former BBC correspondent in Belfast and author of the recently published Living with Ghosts @MerrionPress.

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