Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 1 October 2014

A new track or the gravy train will be derailed

Joan Burton

There is a Buddhist story about a rich and powerful man who has left a house for a long time and returns to find it a wreck. It has burst into flames and his children are playing around, too absorbed in the fantasy world of their games to notice the danger.

He calls for them to come out, but they are so bound up in what they are doing that they ignore his warnings. In the end he promises them whatever he thinks they want just to get them out of the burning building.

When they emerge, they realise the danger and thank him. Even though none of them got precisely what they expected, they realised that standing in safety, with a splendid carriage hung with diamonds to carry them around in together, was even better.

It reminds you of this place, though there is no gratitude here. The British, Irish and American governments got us out of the burning building in the Good Friday Agreement by making ambiguous promises which everyone understood differently.

Afterwards, the politicians got a lavish administration at Stormont with jobs for everyone and a block grant to spend as they saw fit.

In the story, everyone lives happily ever after and the rich man moves on to other concerns.

We lack a happy ending. To stretch the analogy a bit further, it looks as if the children have set the house on fire again and, this time, he suspects vandalism, or an insurance job.

The diamonds have disappeared off the fancy carriage and the brats are struggling to keep it between the hedges. In fact, it seems headed for the cliff's edge as they fight over the reins. It may be time for the adults to intervene again to avoid disaster.

There have been hints from Dublin and London that it could happen. David Cameron came close to saying that in the Commons this week, when he stressed the need for new talks about flags, parading and the past to avoid a dangerous vacuum. Little patience there for any destabilising "graduated response" to the Parades Commission.

In Dublin, Enda Kenny and Joan Burton, the new Tanaiste, have been meeting the SDLP and Sinn Fein with the same concerns.

It will be humiliating if, after all these years of devolution, the governments have to step in once more, but there may be nothing else for it.

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