So, Sinn Fein has decided, wisely, to give negotiation another chance. With Peter Robinson professing his willingness to talk, and the freedom to negotiate with the backing of his party, the outside observer will wonder what it has all been about.
The outside observer does not know the extent of agreement on policing and justice. Neither, apart from rumours, is it clear to what extent they got bogged down in extraneous issues -- like parades and the Irish language.
Sinn Fein has not created any deadlines, but the patience of its followers cannot be endless. Its credibility as a political force is at stake, having persuaded its people to buy into policing on the basis that powers over policing would be transferred from Westminster. It was on this basis that the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) was legitimised in republican circles, and Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) should recognise this.
Perhaps the parties need outside help. Perhaps the governments should step in, or arrange for a facilitator -- on the George Mitchell model. Negotiations can't be allowed to collapse.
Whoever is brought in should begin by giving the participants a copy of John Carlin's 'Invictus' -- a marvellous account of Nelson Mandela's engagement with the Springboks.
Apart from everything else, it is a basic text in peacemaking and reconciliation -- a voyage of discovery characterised by vision, generosity of spirit, mutual respect and a willingness on both sides to take risks.
For generations of black South Africans, rugby, and particularly the green-jerseyed Springboks were the prime symbol of all they hated in the cruel, oppressive and immoral regime. For white South Africans, and especially the Boers, it was an expression of what they were.
Mandela persuaded his followers in the African National Congress (ANC) to embrace the Springboks as their team too. The Springboks were persuaded by their captain, Francois Pienaar, to sing the new national anthem in Xhosa, to carry the new rainbow flag, to accept Mandela's patronage and to play their hearts out for the new South Africa. The Boers ended up singing a Zulu song of protest, and cheering Mandela (who had donned the green jersey) as the leader of the nation. In doing so, both sides snuffed out dissident threats of violence.
There can be no comparison between the weight of oppression of those who suffered the evils of apartheid, the systematic degradation and dehumanising of black South Africans and the irritation of a few provocative marches by Orangemen. But the lesson is there to be drawn. Reconciliation means respect. It requires empathy and understanding; a reciprocal acceptance of differences and the right to express them.
A Northern Ireland Mandela (or a suitably scaled-down version) would persuade his followers to understand the centrality of marching to the Orange and loyalist tradition, and seek acceptable ways to facilitate it. Equally, a protestant Pienaar would bring his people to understand that nationalist regard for Irish language and culture was not something to be sneered, but part of a common heritage to be cherished by all.
These are matters of management, not of high principle. The Parades Commission may not be everybody's favourite quango -- the Ashdown proposals are in many ways naive and impractical -- but that is no reason for not seeking another way. Parades have been managed in Derry as a result of local initiatives, and this could surely offer a template for other locations.
It is past time too to involve the other parties, if only to dull the edge of animosity between Sinn Fein and DUP, and to bring new perspectives.
The overtures between DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) are symptomatic of the realignment that must take place within unionism. Many predicted that, in the post-Paisley DUP, the traditionalists and the churchmen would go one way, and the politicians and modernisers another.
Eventually, the modernisers will merge in some form with the main elements in the UUP, and the traditionalists will join Jim Allister in Traditional Unionst Voice (TUV).
Meantime, the Conservatives will have difficulty in honouring their commitment to run candidates in all 18 northern constituencies if the UUP make electoral pacts with the DUP.
An early Assembly election, or a total breakdown, can be in nobody's interests except those who want to see politics fail. The challenge to the parties and their leaders -- in a week in which the Irish Farmers' Association (IFA) and the GAA in Ulster are showing leadership with a joint campaign against sectarianism in sport -- is to demonstrate that the institutions can be made to function by agreeing on the early transfer of policing and justice.