Northern Ireland: Time for new ideas

Posted By: February 24, 2018

The Belfast Agreement cannot be allowed to lapse on its 20th anniversary
Irish Times. Editorial. Did blin. Saturday, February 24, 2018u

The continuing political stalemate in Northern Ireland requires fresh thinking from all sides, not only from the parties at Stormont but also from the Irish and British governments.
The Belfast Agreement is now in danger of expiring unless some new ideas and energy are brought into the process. The Democratic Unionist Party(DUP) and Sinn Féin came tantalizingly close to an agreement last week, but the collapse of the talks has left the gulf between them as wide as ever. Although all sides say they are committed to finding a way through the impasse, simply bringing them back around the table and hoping that something will turn up is not going to work. 
One of the problems is that the two governments are not as united in their approach as they were in the past. The role of the DUP in keeping the Conservative government in office has added a complicating factor to the equation.
The DUP sees direct rule from Westminster as the only alternative to a restored Executive while Sinn Féin wants the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference to play a role in governing the North and that position is supported by the Government in Dublin. Under the terms of the Belfast Agreement, the intergovernmental conference does not deal with the internal affairs of Northern Ireland but can act as a coordinating body between the two governments to find a common approach to problems as they arise.
As Newton Emerson pointed out in The Irish Times on Thursday, the intergovernmental conference played a key role in devising new ideas during previous interregnums but has not met in recent years. It would be a logical step to invoke it once more to explore the options and see if the common ground established in the failed draft agreement can be built on.

It is also time to consider involving a trusted figure from outside the two islands to promote a reasonable compromise. The role played by Senator George Mitchell in the Belfast Agreement was vital, while subsequent US envoys, particularly Richard Haass, made a serious contribution to the process. Tánaiste Simon Coveney briefed US secretary of state Rex Tillerson the situation yesterday, and a cross-party group in Congress has urged President Donald Trump to appoint a new US envoy.
At this stage, there is an argument for looking outside the US and seeking a respected figure from some other part of the world to perform the task of mediating in the talks. It would also be helpful if all of the parties in the North, and not simply Sinn Féin and the DUP, were involved in the search for a solution. The inclusion of civic society groups might also help.
The Belfast Agreement cannot be allowed to lapse on its 20th anniversary. That option is too awful to contemplate.