In line with the two governments' latest deadline,
Northern Ireland's political parties will today
give their formal responses to the St Andrews
Agreement. For Sinn Féin and the DUP in
particular, there is a clear choice to be made:
either they support the joint proposals or the
Assembly will be shut down for the foreseeable
at least is the notional situation; the reality,
however, is entirely different. Neither of the
two main parties has any intention of giving a
definitive response today. Nor is there any likelihood
that the British government will carry out its
threat to close the Assembly.
what we will get is more obfuscation and another
government climbdown. Such deadlines mean nothing
to the political parties, and little wonder. They
have been allowed, without censure, to disregard
so many in the past we can hardly expect them
to treat one seriously now.
any parent soon learns, ultimatums are only effective
so long as there is at least a suspicion that
they might be acted upon.
parties realised a long time ago that they have
nothing to fear on that score: every previous
government threat has turned out to be an empty
know that instead of being forced to grapple with
issues that could be sorted out in an afternoon
if there was sufficient willingness, they will
be allowed to continue grandstanding and arguing
around them for as long as they like.
our political process, the parties are like spoilt
children who get to set the agenda and dictate
the pace, irrespective of what the governments
might want. For their part, the governments are
like the over-indulgent parents who, at their
wits end, struggle to understand why their spoilt
brats won't behave as they would like them to.
of putting their foot down, their eagerness to
placate and even accede to often mutually exclusive
demands has them striking separate little side
deals and reaching nod-and-a-wink understandings
that ultimately return to haunt and further pollute
the whole process.
of this merely encourages the DUP and Sinn Féin
to continue scurrying back and forth to London
and Dublin to lobby for government support for
their particular positions when, instead, they
should be knuckling down to the cut and thrust
of genuine negotiations. The upshot is that these
parties take no responsibility at all for finding
a way forward. They are content to simply present
demands and preconditions in the expectation that
they will somehow be accommodated.
serious the DUP is about actually contributing
to the restoration of an Executive can be measured
by its refusal to meet Sinn Féin and the
other parties to discuss outstanding issues in
the Preparation for Government Committee (typo:
should read Programme for Government Committee)
outlined in the St Andrews Agreement.
had no such qualms, however, about joining Sinn
Féin in an all-party delegation that travelled
to London to lobby the British chancellor, Gordon
Brown, for another multi-billion pound "peace
package" for Northern Ireland.
money from Westminster, it appears, is far more
important to them than taking responsibility for
trying to get the political institutions up and
running again. In the few weeks since St Andrews,
both Sinn Féin and the DUP have been consulting
their respective party memberships and broader
rather than trying to convince people of the merits
of the joint proposals, each has used this period
of internal consultation merely to rehearse and
reinforce existing positions.
have been made to their electorates, attitudes
have hardened, and further demands and preconditions
have been added to existing lists.
both the DUP and Sinn Féin will certainly
indicate their willingness to accept the St Andrews
proposals, but only on condition that mutually
exclusive requirements are met.
compliant as ever, the two governments will make
every effort to present this non-event in the
best possible light.
and large sections of the media will simply ignore
all of the crucial qualifications and caveats,
and scramble to hail the responses as some kind
of political breakthrough.
from the party pronouncements being a signal of
any kind of advancement, they will merely be further
indication of how weak the governments are and
how counter-productive is their setting of deadlines
and issuing of threats when they have no real
intention of holding fast to them. Solutions have
not been found to the problems around powersharing,
support for policing and a timetable for the devolution
of policing and justice; they have merely been
pushed a little further down the line.
the obvious lack of any real progress, general
focus will now shift to the next "deadline"
of November 24th, when a shadow Assembly is expected
to nominate the first and deputy first ministers.
doubt, Sinn Féin, the DUP and the two governments
in their separate conclaves are already considering
how, in the absence of any agreement, they can
get around that obstacle and keep alive a perpetual
process that has now become an end in itself.
with permission from the author.