Talks to form a new power sharing executive in Belfast have broken down again. Largely this is because James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland Secretary, has been unable to impose a believable deadline after which he would enforce direct rule. This is a particular shame, because shaking the magic money tree in the direction of Northern Ireland could, with some skilful diplomacy, have the effect of resetting Stormont talks.
From the collapse of the power sharing executive in January, up until last week’s Confidence and Supply Agreement between Arlene Foster’s DUP and Theresa May’s Conservatives, Sinn Féin briefly held all the cards. It could sit back as the institutions collapsed, blame the DUP’s (chiefly Foster’s) intransigence, and hint to voters that if things got truly bad, their best hopes for the future lay in a border poll, and unification with the south.
But what difference a week makes. Now, to have a voice in how a £1.5 billion gift from the Bung Parliament will be directed (£500 million of it was previously allocated, but is now more flexible in how it can be spent), Sinn Féin has to get itself back into a power sharing executive, or decisions will be made from Westminster by direct rule. If, that is, we had a NI Secretary capable of making a believable threat to impose it.
But it’s precisely because an agreement is near, and simply in need of some muscle to knock it together, that talks were carried over past yet another deadline last Thursday. And if you listened to DUP and Sinn Féin politicians last week, you could hear the softening of positions and exploration of possible ground for making Northern Irish fudge.
The one stumbling block is something the parties actually agreed on a decade ago, the Irish Language Act. For Nationalists, the argument is this: in other bits of the the UK, Wales and Scotland benefit from legislation putting the status of their threatened Celtic languages on a legal footing. Generally speaking, these acts set up a language board to promote use of the language, and give speakers (11 percent in Wales, 1.1 percent in Scotland, 6 percent in Northern Ireland) the right to use it in court or while accessing public services. So, having an Irish Language Act for Northern Ireland just brings the North into line with the rest of the UK, which you would think Unionists would like, but somehow they don’t.
It may seem uncontroversial to have a tweedy language board and a few translators to deal with the rare event an agency receives a form in Irish. But the DUP are – if you’ve not noticed – generally the best negotiators in the room. So, they’re pushing for this Irish Language Act to be a Culture Act, and for a compensating dollop of funding for Ulster Scots, a language which uncharitably has been called a phonetic representation of a Northern Irish accent. It’s simple quid-pro-quoism. To be able to help spend the £1.5 billion, Sinn Féin will need to stomach an Irish Language Act they have sought for a decade now being loaded with patronage cash in the guise of Ulster Scots.
But dispense some Loyalist lolly and be done with it. The peace process has a history of side sweeteners, back to when Sinn Féin got early release of prisoners in exchange for decommissioning. And since Sinn Féin have quietly backed away from their demands for the UK’s Second Most Powerful Woman to step aside, suddenly, it looks like you actually can do a deal.
However, this would require James Brokenshire, one of the most unpromising people ever to hold the post, to do something he is spectacularly unlikely to do: seize the moment. Yesterday, Brokenshire said a deal to restore power sharing was still achievable. It needs to happen quickly though, because pretty soon, we’re in marching season. It’s not a particularly good time to do a power sharing agreement. It’s not an extremely good time not to have one, either. After that, it’s on to Stormont’s two-month summer holiday, and the next window for an agreement becomes autumn.
A Conservative party which can claim credit for initiating the Peace Process under Major, now through inattention, is in danger of letting it grind out. There are always more important things confronting Downing Street – this was not different in 1998 (Kosovo) or 2007 (Iraq, Afghanistan). A push from the top right now will prevent Northern Ireland from otherwise being a rumbling distraction from Brexit through the remainder of the year. The contours of a deal are there. The opportunity will not be as good for months. Why not just do it now?