Resolve areas of dispute first

Posted By: September 02, 2017

Irish News Editorial. Belfast. Saturday, September 2017

While the tone of Arlene Foster’s renewed attempt to facilitate the return of our devolved institutions was generally measured, she must have known in advance that her proposals were not likely to produce any form of breakthrough.

The DUP leader’s main message in her speech on Thursday night was that the Stormont executive should be immediately restored, with the key matters which divide the main parties then addressed in due course through what she described as a time-limited process.

Most nationalists and many other observers, looking at the unfortunate history of the last administration, the serious errors it made and the recriminations which followed its collapse last January, will believe that the sequence of events should be exactly the other way around.

If a lasting accommodation is to be reached, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that we need to resolve the areas of dispute once and for all before trying to put the devolved structures back in place.

There is a huge danger that inviting newly-appointed ministers to sit around the executive table before a full consensus is reached would led to swiftly to almost inevitable confrontations and walkouts, followed by a breakdown in relationships which could drift on indefinitely.

An Irish Language Act has undoubtedly emerged as the biggest single stumbling block, due to a number of factors including the blatantly insulting approach to the debate by some prominent DUP figures.

Mrs. Foster— after causing an uproar as a result of her own notorious comment about crocodiles earlier in the year—has now offered the much more conciliatory although noticeably vague suggestion that legislation over language and culture can indeed be pursued.

What is required, as this newspaper pointed out yesterday, is a straightforward and specific Irish Language Act which resembles those already uncontentious in place in Scotland and Wales.

Bills covering equality and rights are also fully capable of being finalized, and in keeping with a spirit of reconciliation, Sinn Féin should be ready to drop its previous insistence that Mrs. Foster cannot be nominated as the first minister until the Renewable Heat Incentive inquiry has been completed.

A case could previously have been made last year for a temporary withdrawal from the post by Mrs. Foster, in line with the precedent created by her predecessor, Peter Robinson, in 2010.

However, circumstances have changed significantly as the RHI hearings could easily still be running at this stage next year, Mrs. Foster is not present in the first minister’s office anyway and she was plainly given a strengthened leadership mandate through the outcome of June’s UK general election.

There will be a sense that the climate which would allow the reintroduction of the devolved structures has yet to be created, but the best way to proceed is by moving firmly into the patient and prolonged inter-party negotiations.