Nothing new in DUP leader’s proposals

Posted By: September 02, 2017

“Although packaged differently and delivered in a more conciliatory tone, there was effectively nothing new in the former first minister’s proposals. She [Arlene Foster] said new thinking was required but ironically offered none.”

John Manley. Irish News. Belfast. Saturday, September 2, 2017

While the talk in the wake of Arlene Foster’s speech to the DUP executive on Thursday night is of deepening crisis and intractable deadlock, it’s worth remembering that the situation we find ourselves in is no different than it was a month ago – or even six months ago.

Mrs. Foster’s words have triggered a sudden surge in media attention after a few weeks of only sporadic coverage but unfortunately, they have not provided the process with the fresh momentum it requires. Although packaged differently and delivered in a more conciliatory tone, there was effectively nothing new in the former first minister’s proposals.

She said new thinking was required but ironically offered none.

Proposing setting-up an executive immediately to deal with the pressures on education and health certainly has popular appeal but it does not address the issues that caused power-sharing to fail. Nor is the idea especially new, having been aired by her colleague Simon Hamilton last month.

The pledge to look at language and culture within a stated time frame is also a little stale given that proposals for addressing these issues have been on the table since before Easter and do not require more time to be considered.

Not all blame lies with the DUP, however. Sinn Féin’s narrative about a lack of respect from Unionism is not yet a year old.

Remember it was only last November that Martin McGuinness joined Mrs. Foster is penning a joint letter that berated others for “filling the airwaves with endless squabbles” and promised delivery from the Executive on bread and butter issues.

Something subsequently prompted a shift in Sinn Féin’s strategy and despite what they tell us, it wasn’t just RHI, the full detail of which had already been in the public domain for more than six months before Republicans began using it as a stick to beat the DUP.

Brexit and the potential for a snap election in The South is thought to have prompted Sinn Féin to adopt a different approach, though for many in The North a suspicion remains that the party is ill-equipped to govern at Stormont, leaving the DUP ‘to run rings round’ not because the latter is especially competent but because their partners in government were lackluster.

Michelle O’Neill insists her party is committed to power-sharing but we’ve yet to see anything to suggest they are in a hurry to restore it. The speed with which she – or Gerry Adams? – rejected Mrs. Foster’s proposals was telling and indicated there is little appetite for compromise in the Sinn Féin camp.

So what now for the two governments?

The options for adding new impetus were already limited but public discord makes bringing the two big parties together in an atmosphere conducive to successful negotiations doubly difficult.

Secretary of State James Brokenshire has been doggedly reluctant to discuss alternatives to an Executive,  but with few straws of hope left to grasp at, he’d be well advised to start thinking the unthinkable.