Belfast Telegraph

As we play waiting game, parties plough on in bid to strike a deal

By Noel McAdam

We waited and we waited. And then we waited some more. A week after the longest day of the year it seemed like an even longer day around Stormont Castle yesterday.

Hard-bitten hacks were reduced to taking pictures of hanging baskets, and even that took on something of a symbolic hue.

After all, there was a lot of hanging about.

On TV and radio bulletins they kept referring to 'the waiting game'. But if it was a game, we felt like the losers.

Then again, when time hangs heavy for the waiting media, it can mean time is being used more usefully inside at the actual talks.

Or not. With the clock fast ticking towards political paralysis, the DUP and Sinn Fein were locked in discussions which were set to go on into the wee hours.

Late last night, following his jousting match at Northern Ireland Questions in the House of Commons, Secretary of State James Brokenshire also rejoined proceedings.

New Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney tweeted that he expected a very late night. No one demurred.

But after hours with next to nothing happening, there were sudden flurries of activity. There was an indication from inside the building came that the Irish Government was supporting plans for a stand-alone Irish Language Act, one of Sinn Fein's key demands.

The DUP's Edwin Poots said his party recognised it was a "touchstone issue" for Sinn Fein and wanted to respect the importance they attached to it. But on agreement to an Act - or a Bill of Rights - Sinn Fein's John O'Dowd insisted the DUP had yet to budge.

Former Education Minister O'Dowd called on London and Dublin to inject "leadership and energy" into the talks - but former Health Minister Poots said no one party could deliver the process "on its own".

Away from all the posturing and playing to respective galleries, however, there was a growing sense of a serious attempt to salvage something.

Earlier on, the three other parties who could today help form a new Executive - the SDLP, Ulster Unionists and Alliance - held a meeting of their own, without the DUP and Sinn Fein.

They held it in the room normally reserved for full round-table sessions, with officials from London and Dublin also present.

But the only representative from any of the participants to emerge in public was UUP leader Robin Swann, who insisted his party would not be taken for granted - and still had lots of questions and issues it needed to put forward.

All the parties know that, after today, devolution could be in the deep freeze for years. Without a deal to restore Stormont, the Government will have to consider the re-introduction of direct rule, no matter how loathe it is to do so.

Stormont has survived some bumpy rides, but there is less and less attraction to the fairground as the years go on.

In the closing stages of the kind of crisis talks our MLAs like to subject us all to, the dodgems and swings and roundabouts of the parties turn into a roller coaster ride. One minute you are riding high, an hour later plunging down and then stuck in the loop again.

Belfast Telegraph

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