Talks need expert help

Posted By: April 03, 2017


Distributed by Irish National Caucus

Irish News Editorial. Belfast. Monday, April 3, 2017

It can safely be concluded that no other British government minister would want to change places with James Brokenshire, the embattled Secretary of State for Northern Ireland who is attempting to start another round of Stormont talks today.

When he was appointed to his post in July of last year, the devolved structures which had been in place for almost a decade looked completely stable, and all the indications were that his role would be a very low key and straightforward one.

Instead, relationships between the main parties rapidly disintegrated over the Renewable Heat Initiative- scandal and a range of other issues, the institutions were suspended and, after a bitterly contested election a month ago which changed the political landscape, the prospects of a deal which would allow their return look increasingly remote.

Mr. Brokenshire cannot in any way be held responsible for the almost entirely unexpected collapse of the Executive, but legitimate questions will be asked about his stewardship of the subsequent events.

What was essential in the first place was that he could present himself as an independent chair of the negotiations who was capable of demonstrating that he held the respect of all the key figures.

Unfortunately, almost three weeks after the resignation of the late Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister precipitated a full-blown crisis, Mr. Brokenshire made a highly contentious intervention into the hugely sensitive debate on dealing with the past.

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph of January 28, the eve of the anniversary of the 1972 killing of 14 civilians by the Parachute Regiment in Derry, he claimed there had been a “disproportionate focus” on the British security forces by subsequent investigations.

When the Public Prosecution Service immediately responded by releasing figures showing that it had pursued five times more cases against alleged paramilitaries than British soldiers over the last five years, Mr. Brokenshire was plainly in difficulties.

As he had faced further specific criticism from the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Declan Morgan, over declining to provide funding for an inquest into the 1971 deaths of another 11 civilians shot by British soldiers in the Ballymurphy area of west Belfast, Mr. Brokenshire’s basic objectivity was on the line.

There were persistent suggestions that Stormont negotiations lacked focus over a three-week period last month, with a full plenary session had not having proved possible, and speculation grew that the appointment of an outside chair would have to follow.

Sinn Féin and the SDLP openly favor such a development, and both the Independent Unionist MP Lady Sylvia Hermon and the Green Party have put forward possible candidates, but in a BBC interview on Friday, Mr. Brokenshire rejected the option.

One of his many enormous problems is that he is expected to take charge of a vital process in which he is by some distance, in Stormont terms, the least experienced participant, and where there is a strong perception that, for well-documented reasons, he is unduly closely associated with the position of the DUP.

If he cannot deliver some tangible form of progress in the short term, Mr. Brokenshire should be prepared to accept that he has gone as far as he can in complex circumstances and the nomination of one or more new mediators, from these islands or beyond, has become essential.