Friday 26 May 2017

Brexit launch date adds to the urgency at Belfast talks

The statue of Edward Carson in front of Stormont Picture: PA
The statue of Edward Carson in front of Stormont Picture: PA
John Downing

John Downing

Talks in Northern Ireland have never, ever, worked to deadlines. But discussions aimed at reviving the power-sharing executive began yesterday with a seven-day time-frame, and were compounded by British Prime Minister Theresa May's pledge to finally open EU-UK divorce proceedings eight days from now.

Now we have an Irish-British deadline reinforced by an EU time-limit. Wonder how that one will play out? It is a stretch to imagine all fractious parties suddenly making common cause for the greater good of the people in Northern Ireland.

Voters in the North had a most unwanted and unnecessary election on March 2 as the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin locked horns over how to deal with the ludicrous runaway taxpayer-funded budget for an environmentally-friendly heating scheme. DUP leader Arlene Foster had questions to answer from her time as the minister responsible.

Then, as now, she resisted Sinn Féin demands for her to temporarily stand aside pending independent investigation. Then, as now, Sinn Féin refused power-sharing until Ms Foster steps out for a time.

Against that encouraging background, the prospect of restoring power-sharing will be decided by various negotiations in Stormont this week.

Let's recall that the elections were held on March 2; the local deadline for a power-sharing deal is next Monday, March 27; the Brexit trigger will be pulled two days later, on March 29.

Anywhere else, such momentous deadlines would concentrate minds. The theory is that if no deal is in place by next week, the British government must decide on extending the deadline for talks.

More encouragingly, none of the main players has argued against the restoration of power-sharing. All seem determined to resist the "nuclear option" of direct rule from London.

But all of the parties need to pick up the pace and focus on government-making. Many eyes will be on Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, who has returned from St Patrick's Day events in the US.

He will join the party's newly appointed leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O'Neill, in these talks. The seriously ill Martin McGuinness's skills to empathise with adversaries will be sorely missed.

Sinn Féin made big gains on March 2 and its next moves, in discussions with the DUP, are crucial. Another positive is that two of the smaller parties, the SDLP and the Alliance, may well rejoin a power-sharing government, if the circumstances are right.

Alongside the Ulster Unionists, they opted for an opposition role in the last administration. But that experiment did not do them much good. "New politics" are a strain on both sides of the Border.

Irish Independent

Promoted articles

Also in Business