Belfast Telegraph

Naomi Long: Northern Ireland talks failure is like boy who cried wolf... no one takes it seriously until it is too late

So much at stake but will for a deal seems lacking, argues Alliance leader Naomi Long

As we sit here in another round of talks to restore devolution, many of us have cast our minds back to Holy Week in 1998 when talks to establish the Good Friday Agreement were entering their final days.

Whilst much has changed on the inside of the process, including the main protagonists and the scale and scope of the differences to be overcome, it's also telling that much has changed outside too.

Northern Ireland today is almost unrecognisable from the Northern Ireland of 1998, with genuine and positive change being delivered over almost 20 years of relative peace and stability. Perhaps that's why, whilst there was serious pressure building from the public and wider civic society around the Parliament Buildings back in 1998, now complaints are relatively muted at the prospect of no deal.

Perhaps that's because an increasingly disillusioned and frustrated public are weary of hearing the words 'crisis' and 'talks', and of watching political posturing about issues which seem remote from their fears for the future.

Or perhaps they have stopped listening or, at the very least, are cynical about the seriousness of the situation in which we find ourselves, worn down by crisis-fatigue.

Indeed, there remains little sense of momentum even on the part of a number of parties in the talks process itself, and there is a detectable air of complacency over the consequences of continued deadlock.

The failure of recent talks processes, whether CSI or Haass, has created a false sense of security, as they happened against a backdrop of continuing devolution, however dysfunctional, and carried little threat of collapse.

It's like the little boy who cried wolf - people stop taking it seriously.

Yet, right now, the stakes are incredibly high. We are at the start of a new financial year, yet there is no Budget. We have just seen the triggering of Article 50, yet we have no Brexit plan. We are already overdue the Assembly vote needed to set next year's regional rate, yet we have no Assembly. We have no Programme for Government and no Government to agree one.

People have already lost their jobs and as budgets continue to be constrained in the absence of strong, local political leadership, many more face an increasingly uncertain future.

We owe it to those both who rely on and also who deliver our vital public services -health, education, infrastructure - whether in the public, private or voluntary and community sector, to restore devolution in a manner which is sustainable and focused on the needs of those who elected us only a few short weeks ago.

In the context of Brexit, we are more vulnerable to its effects than any other region, yet without a devolved government in place, are not well placed to take advantage of the good will of other EU members to facilitate a solution which respects the shared and inter-locking nature of politics, economics and identity.

Meanwhile, the economic, social and financial challenges are piling up due to not only the deadlock of the past few months, but also years of under-performance and missed opportunity from dysfunctional governance.

Arguments over precisely how much an Irish Language Act would cost pale into insignificance set beside the impact of an unreformed, cash-starved health service.

More than all of that, however, failure to reach agreement will call into question the very concept of power-sharing and regional devolution, and many of the assumptions that have driven the political process for more than two decades.

It risks squandering all that we have invested, not just in the Good Friday Agreement, but in the previous failed attempts to bring about power sharing devolution and placing in jeopardy much of the progress we have made. It is therefore vital all parties focus on the bigger picture and act in the common good, putting in place the basis for a restored Executive with a viable plan for Brexit and a set of progressive policies which can fulfil the hopes and aspirations of the people who voted to see Northern Ireland pull together rather than fall apart.

While on many of the issues progress has been made and the gaps between parties are seemingly narrow, the divisions between the parties are deep, with mistrust, lack of respect, and inflexibility hindering agreement. A deal can and must be done, but the will appears lacking.

Of course there are those who will doubt things are really that serious. We've heard it all before. There's always a crisis.

The moral of the tale of the little boy who cried wolf was that one day there was a wolf. By t he time people realised it was a real threat, it was already too late. Let's not make that mistake with our future.

Belfast Telegraph

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