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Eilis O'Hanlon: Are we sleepwalking our way into biggest ever crisis at Stormont?

Cynical finger-pointing by Northern Ireland's politicians will not solve province's mounting problems

By Eilis O'Hanlon

It's not about reaching a deal any more. It's all about avoiding the blame for not reaching one. Is there any point at this stage in reminding those who won't come to a sensible agreement to restore devolution at Stormont that there are more important issues facing Northern Ireland right now than who gets to sashay out of talks with enhanced bragging rights?

Probably not. They already know that the health service locally is under increasing pressure; and that school budgets face what one principal in Newry calls "devastating cuts"; and that the most vulnerable in society are at risk if the previous deal to protect them from welfare cuts is allowed to lapse without a fight.

Then there's Brexit, which is hurtling down the track whether Northern Ireland has a plan in place for dealing with the economic consequences or not.

Not only are political leaders aware of all this, they also know that these problems can only become more acute the longer that Stormont remains empty.

They still prefer to play silly beggars anyway.

As a result, we could be sleepwalking into one of the biggest crises to face Northern Ireland for a long time.

At those words, many will be inclined to roll their eyes and yawn. And who could blame them for that?

The words "Northern Ireland" and "crisis" go together like "Boris Johnson" and "silly haircut".

But dismissing the present standoff as typical of the same old sectarian carnival that passes for normal politics in these parts is symptomatic of that complacency too, because this isn't like those other times.

The Prime Minister's priorities are clear. Brexit takes precedence over everything else. Rightly so. Without being melodramatic, exiting the EU is Britain's biggest challenge as a nation since the Second World War.

The Taoiseach is outwardly committed to getting devolution back on track, but he won't be around for long, either. His ruling Fine Gael party is preparing for a change of leader, following which there may be another election. Dublin will make the right noises about the peace process during campaigning, but it won't be uppermost in Irish voters' minds. Nor should it be. They too have enough problems of their own.

As for the US President, he came into office with a promise to stay clear of foreign entanglements. That went by the wayside when he launched Tomahawk missile strikes on Syria, but there's no evidence he has any interest in Ireland. We're on our own this time.

That's never happened before. Crisis after crisis came along, provoked by everything from decommissioning to the Stormontgate spy ring; but each one arose because of a breakdown of trust and communication between the DUP and Sinn Fein, and each one was eventually resolved by brokering a deal between them, overseen by powerful outsiders.

Without a similar will to do on their own what they've always done under a watchful international eye, then all bets are off. Direct rule continued for five years the last time it had to be reimposed in 2002. Who knows how long the next suspension of devolution could last?

In the meantime, the most likely scenario is that the world will decide we dug ourselves into this mess, so we should dig ourselves out, especially when there was no good reason to bring Stormont down to begin with. You can't keep trashing your own house and expecting the neighbours to come in and help you tidy up.

The real tragedy is that what most people want is not excessive. They don't expect Northern Ireland's historic quarrels to be settled for all-time.

They just want the parties who've been elected to office to start governing, because that's what politics is meant to be about. There isn't a Minister for Solving Centuries of Division Overnight, but there are Ministers for Education, Agriculture, Finance, Infrastructure, Health - in name, at least. All those posts are sitting vacant because two parties who between them only got a little more than 50% of the vote on a 64% turnout cannot put their differences and egos aside. That's monstrous self-indulgence in a tiny country with a population smaller than that of many European cities such as Barcelona or Budapest.

The Hungarian capital's General Assembly wouldn't expect the cavalry to ride in every time it couldn't agree a deal on local government. It's ridiculous for us to expect to be treated as a special case.

Too many politicians are resigned to letting the institutions gather dust, even though a restoration of devolution is wanted by more than six in 10 voters, hoping only that their own supporters will blame the other side for the reimposition of direct rule.

They may even be right about that. Why else would Sinn Fein be willing to risk another election if it didn't think it could get away with it?

The party's Northern leader, Michelle O'Neill, insists it should be up to the people to decide what happens next, but the fact that these same people have repeatedly said they don't want another election clearly doesn't count. The symbolic significance of SF's preferred day to trigger the end of talks and blunder into another election is surely no accident either.

Almost exactly 19 years ago, there was one Good Friday Agreement to bring hope. Now a new Good Friday Disagreement looms to snuff it out.

Finding anyone who can explain what another trip to the polling booths is meant to achieve is harder than tracking down Shergar.

Sinn Fein closed the gap on the DUP at the last election to just one seat. Presumably it thinks it can overtake the DUP if given another shot, metaphorically speaking.

That's unlikely, since the scare provided by SF's advance will surely be enough to rally unionist voters around Arlene Foster, thereby making another election even more of a sectarian headcount than usual.

But even if SF did manage to edge past the DUP in seat numbers, what then?

It still has to go back into talks, with the same issues unresolved as now.

Or since that would make it a 1-1 draw in 2017, are the two biggest parties planning to settle it on penalties, or go for a third election on a "best of three" principle, like children playing Rock, Paper, Scissors?

Neither option would be any more irresponsible than the cynical games currently being played to uphold the tribal politics that got us here in the first place.

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