Talks require fresh approach

Posted By: March 13, 2017

Irish News Editorial. Belfast. Monday, March 13, 2017

AN injection of fresh thinking is urgently required if the Stormont talks, which today enter the second of their scheduled three weeks, are not going to inevitably slide into a period of lengthy stalemate and angry recriminations.

Nothing is impossible if a general degree of goodwill can be achieved, but few observers are expecting a positive outcome in the present circumstances and the suggestion from our embattled secretary of state, James Brokenshire, that he could instead call another election – which would be the third within ten months – has been greeted with widespread skepticism.

It need to be accepted that our devolved structures, while surrounded by potential, have largely failed to deliver meaningful results and most ordinary citizens across all sections of our divided society would be less than traumatized if they were suspended on a prolonged basis.

As we reach a stage when the most compelling argument for a restoration of the executive is to prevent powers being transferred to a plainly baffled Mr. Brokenshire, even Arlene Foster’s most fervent admirers must know that she is in deep trouble.

While some DUP figures may still try to convince themselves that the clock is capable of being turned back to the days when they held a dominant position, the reality is that Unionists have suddenly slipped from maintaining an overall 56 out of 108 seats to holding just 40 of the 90 posts in the new Assembly.

The message for change from the electorate was unmistakable and indicated that an enduring spell of direct rule – under Mr .Brokenshire or whoever succeeds him – was preferable to any return to a discredited status quo.

Although there are overwhelming arguments in favor of Mrs. Foster standing down from her role at least temporarily,  to demonstrate the total independence of the public inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal, we all have a responsibility to examine other options.

One possible way forward would be to confirm that, as the offices of First and Deputy First Minister have always been of equal status, their titles should from now on fully reflect the partnership approach which was at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement.

The positive influence of Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness on the wider process has been badly missed, and people from all traditions will wish him well as he is treated for what has been acknowledged to be a serious medical condition.

Mr McGuinness previously indicated that, if Sinn Féin became the largest assembly party, he would be happy to welcome a protocol in which the executive was under the designated control of two leaders who were formally described as Joint First Ministers.

The time is right for such a move as Unionists have lost their overall majority at Stormont for the first time since the introduction of the 1920 Government of Ireland Act and this month’s election resulted in a virtual dead heat between the DUP and Sinn Féin in terms of the overall voting figures.

If a cross-party endorsement for this reform followed, it would, at a stroke, remove many of the tensions over symbolism within Parliament Buildings, allow Mrs. Foster to work constructively with her Sinn Féin counterpart Michelle O’Neill and firmly signal that serious efforts to resolve our key issues were under way.

Unless the DUP can suddenly and unexpectedly produce other credible proposals which will facilitate reconciliation, we are rapidly running out of alternatives.