Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: That whooshing sound you hear is just another talks deadline going by

Parties can't afford to squander opportunity to strike a deal, but first Arlene needs to throw Gerry a bone, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

The author Douglas Adams, who wrote the famous Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, was not known for his ability to deliver new books on time to his publisher. "I love deadlines," he once quipped. "I like the whooshing noise they make as they go by."

He would have felt right at home in Northern Ireland politics, where deadlines swoosh by without agreement on a regular basis. There's another one today. That's when the Assembly is set to meet at Stormont and vote on the new First and Deputy First Ministers.

For that to happen, however, a deal needs to be done to restore power-sharing and, naturally, they're keeping us all in suspense. There's no better way to seem important than to constantly turn up fashionably late.

The issues being thrashed out are well-known at this stage. Irish Language Act. Bill of Rights. Brexit. The dreaded Renewable Heat Incentive, which was used as the excuse to bring Stormont down in the first place.

Having thought about little else for months, is it too much to ask that the parties would have come to the table knowing what compromises they were willing to offer, then just get on with it?

This has all happened numerous times before. Round-table talks. Crisis talks. Last-ditch talks. Talks about talks.

This time, the circumstances are very different, though. The Westminster election made sure of that.

Arlene Foster went into these negotiations strengthened by Prime Minister Theresa May's unexpected dependency on the party's 10 MPs to form a Government.

In return, Northern Ireland was rewarded with £1bn-worth of goodies that makes the DUP's leader look like Santa Claus.

Foster now has huge national, as well as local, influence. The idea that she might step aside anytime soon is fanciful.

This transformation in her fortunes has left the other parties in an awkward position.

The Ulster Unionists, SDLP and Alliance must take their own share of responsibility for fuelling the hysteria which led to the collapse of Stormont, but ultimately they'll dutifully sign on the dotted line of any half-acceptable document. It's Sinn Fein which has suffered the biggest setback.

The party's manifesto for the election earlier this month highlighted the importance of "protecting those most in need" - the DUP delivered just that.

In so doing, Sinn Fein's entire negotiating position was undermined.

The party won't be swayed from abstentionism. Republicans have an ideological resistance to the idea that British political institutions should have a say over Irish affairs.

That's entirely legitimate. But, in reality, Westminster does have a say over Irish affairs and the DUP proved this can be worked to Northern Ireland's advantage on a cross-community level - "for the many, not the few", to borrow a phrase from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

The pendulum has swung back and forth for months. Sometimes the momentum was with the DUP, sometimes with Sinn Fein - but, when it mattered, Arlene came out on top and there are few immediate opportunities for Sinn Fein to wrestle back the initiative.

That's why it is so important for them to get back to Stormont.

For a time, the party looked happy to stay outside the Executive, hoping for pressure to build for a border poll. Now it's clearly the only game in town.

Logic suggests that weakness should make Sinn Fein more eager to settle, but that's not always how it works. Parties only want to make deals from positions of strength.

Richard Bullick, former adviser to both Peter Robinson and Mrs Foster, noted on radio on Tuesday that parties in Northern Ireland have this unfortunate tendency to "overplay their hand". That's what Sinn Fein did back in March.

Rather than finalise a deal when conditions were favourable, it pushed for further concessions, throwing its weight around, only for circumstances to overtake them.

They may have to accept less now than was on offer then, but they need to accept something because their credibility is on the line, both north and south. They'll become bystanders to the political process if they come away with nothing.

What they need is something to sweeten that bitter pill. Is the DUP prepared to offer it to them?

The answer to that depends on which leaked version of the last hours of negotiation at Stormont one chooses to believe, but the omens don't look good.

Sinn Fein is putting all its eggs into the basket of some grand concept of a "rights-based society", conveniently forgetting that this time last year where they waxing lyrical about the benefits of devolved government - despite there being no same-sex marriage on the statute book at that time either.

Roughly translated, it looks as if they desperately want and need the DUP to throw them a bone. It's in the DUP's interests to do so, because the circumstances in which these talks are taking place are different in one other significant way. In summary: this is our problem now - and ours alone. No one else cares.

The EU might be pretending to have Northern Ireland's best interests at heart, but that's only as a stick with which to beat the British in Brexit negotiations. In the end, more selfish interests will prevail in Brussels.

Likewise, London is consumed with its own problems and certainly doesn't want to take on the additional burden of direct rule.

President Trump would only be persuaded to fly in to the rescue if there was a guaranteed diplomatic success for which he could then claim credit.

The only thing that could change these less-than-fortuitous circumstances is another election that leads to a new, more Gerry-friendly Government at Westminster and the DUP has put paid to that prospect, possibly for the whole five-year term.

Looked at this way, how can there not be a deal to allow ministers to retake their posts and start spending the much-needed money that the DUP's hard graft has won?

One Arab writer put it best when he summed up the difference between the two sides in the Middle East: "The Israelis have one philosophy: take what you can get, then slowly change it. Arabs have one philosophy, too: take all or nothing. So, of course, we have nothing."

Those wise words should be hung on the wall of every negotiating room. It may be that, if this deadline passes, another one will pop up to replace it. It's happened before.

But Northern Ireland can't expect to be handed endless chances. Letting another deadline whoosh by would be an unforgivable, self-indulgent error.

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