Should Sinn Fein and DUP alone make deal?
It smacks of a DUP-Sinn Fein carve-up, leaving their junior Executive partners out in the cold. But a two-party deal is still better than the alternatives - just about
When is a deal not a deal in Northern Ireland? Well, if experience is anything to go by, then there haven't really been any deals at all - since at least one party seems to come up with some excuse or other for ignoring, u-turning, backtracking, sabotaging, or forgetting all about what the rest of the parties thought they had agreed to.
It goes back to day one of the Good Friday Agreement and David Trimble's reference to the need for "constructive ambiguity": which, in essence, allowed the signatories to an agreement to promote it exactly as they wanted to, even if what they said was the exact opposite of what other signatories were saying to their own voters.
It was just a refined version of Humpty Dumpty's dictum: "When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less. The question is, which is to be master - that's all."
It soon became apparent, however, that "constructive ambiguity" tended to morph into destructive clarity as soon as the parties had to make a decision. Yet, on each occasion, when the parties were forced back to a negotiating table at Stormont, Hillsborough, Leeds, St Andrew's, or wherever, to deal with the fallout from their mutually contradictory positions on previous agreements and "understandings", they stuck to the usual format of humbug, ambiguity, sticking plasters and last-minute, seat-of-their-pants deals.
All of which, as Einstein would have told them ("Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results"), will always lead you back to where you started and confronted with exactly the same problems.
So, if a deal is to stick - and be delivered - then it must be a deal which means precisely the same thing to everyone who has signed off on it and which must be capable of being sold in the same words to both communities and none.
On December 23, 2014, the parties made quite a song and dance about the Stormont House Agreement. Peter Robinson described it as "one in the eye for all the dreary cynics". Martin McGuinness claimed it as a "victory over the pessimists".
Mike Nesbitt stated that it "proved that progress, however slow, was capable of being made". David Ford said: "The real value of the agreement will only be known if and when it is implemented ... the work to turn the commitments into reality must begin immediately."
The SDLP admitted: "There has been progress on some issues, but the outcome is not comprehensive, or decisive, across all issues. The SDLP will work to protect and implement what is good and strong in Stormont House. We will also work to correct what is weak in Stormont House and make progress on the issues where Stormont House is far too silent."
And there you have it: a classic dog's dinner response by the five parties to an agreement they had spent about three months negotiating.
Something had been "agreed", but none of them was entirely sure what. The following morning, less than 18 hours after the Press conference had ended, DUP and Sinn Fein spokesmen were on The Nolan Show disagreeing.
A week or so later, the UUP executive "parked" the agreement and refused to endorse it (which is what they had done a year earlier with the Haass Agreement). Then the SDLP said it wouldn't "ratify" the Agreement, either.
And then, in March 2015, Sinn Fein decided that it was pulling the plug on implementation until the welfare aspects were rewritten and re-agreed. Yep, all par for the course when it comes to our kind of deals.
So, here's a question: does it really matter if the next deal isn't a five-party deal? Given what has happened in the past three years, the answer would have to be No.
If an agreement is to work, then all it really needs is buy-in from the DUP and Sinn Fein: after all, they hold 67 of the 108 seats, dominate the Executive and represent 376,660 of the 631,863 votes cast at the last Assembly election.
Either one of them has the clout to stop what they don't like. And for all their occasional bouts of self-aggrandisement and faux relevance, the UUP, SDLP and Alliance are mere bit-players. Worse than that - if an agreement works, they get none of the credit, yet if it fails, they share all of the blame.
There's a lot to be said, therefore, for a Sinn Fein/DUP deal: an "Ourselves Alone" deal, if you like. It's been obvious since June that both the UUP and SDLP were being kept out of the main negotiating loop, so it's likely that whatever emerges will prove difficult for them to endorse.
And since the UUP isn't even in the Executive, I'm not sure what they would gain by endorsing a deal they won't have a hand in delivering. Plus, if the DUP and Sinn Fein are actually prepared to work together, then the UUP's "game-changer" plan for Programme for Government negotiations after an election will be dead in the water.
The other thing about a Sinn Fein/DUP deal is that it really does force the hands of the other three main parties. If they buy in, then they are going to be dwarfed and controlled by the Big Two; if they don't buy in, then they will have to stand on their own and offer a credible alternative at the coming election.
Would they have the courage to present a coalition alternative to the DUP/Sinn Fein axis? Or will they do what they usually do and settle for some Executive crumbs when the election dust settles?
And a DUP/Sinn Fein deal forces their hands, as well. They know they have to work together, so they may as well do it on the basis of their own deal. It would mean issuing a joint, clear and unambiguous statement of intent, along with a mechanism and timetable for delivery.
This would be their deal: no nuances, no room for manoeuvre, or backtracking, and no resorting to petitions of concern, or "cunning plans" when the going gets tough.
They should also throw in an early election - the first week in February - to focus collective minds and limit the time for early unravelling.
We have spent years complaining about the chaos of our structures, the collapse of agreements and the DUP/Sinn Fein carve-up of office. So, maybe, after serial crises, we should encourage Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness to make the deal themselves and deliver it themselves.
If nothing else, we'll know who to blame if it doesn't work. And, who knows, it might encourage the other parties to get their act together and provide a genuine, credible, electoral/political alternative.