Stormont poll or direct rule? You pay your money, you take your choice
With a deal over the Assembly on the long finger, Secretary of State James Brokenshire has a tough decision to make, says Rick Wilford.
Theresa May's decision to call a snap General Election has, in all probability, placed the prospect of a deal here on the long finger. The Prime Minister hasn't so much as thrown a dead feline onto our negotiating table, but rather a very lively herd of mostly unmanageable cats.
In Northern Ireland, the next seven weeks will doubtless yield a highly polarised Westminster campaign, as communal trenches are dug even deeper by the contending parties. While the intra-unionist contest will be ameliorated by an electoral pact, the battle between unionism and nationalism will be redoubled, further souring an already dire atmosphere.
One is tempted to say that Mrs May's decision has, for us, turned a difficult situation into a seemingly impossible one. But perhaps this is too gloomy a prognosis.
Gerry Adams' remark last week that "the optimism of the heart has to overcome the pessimism of the mind" may have struck a chord with those who otherwise had concluded that the talks had reached an impasse.
(By the by, this was not an original thought on the Sinn Fein leader's part, but rather a paraphrase of an earlier sentiment voiced by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, namely, "Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will".)
Even so, if Mr Adams' statement struck a hopeful note, so, too, did Arlene Foster's belated decision to engage with Irish speakers - or, at least, those of them who are, in her judgment, free of political baggage and who cannot be accused of "weaponising" the Irish language.
Such straws in the wind may have suggested that devolution could be born again as the talks resumed. That it would be a troubled birth was already evident. Conversely, far from a happy ending, the talks could easily miscarry, or, even more distressingly, be stillborn.
Now in the face of a General Election, it seems clear that the gestation period of any prospective deal will be longer and its outcome way overdue.
Time, perhaps, to consider the alternatives. As far as Sinn Fein is concerned, a failed talks process leads only to another Assembly election, with the voters trooping to the polls in June when the marching season is well under way. This is a possibility: we may have both an Assembly and a General Election on June 8.
For unionists, chastened by the outcomes of the March election, a possible second Assembly contest - and a certain General Election - in the very short run will serve to deepen their anxiety already stirred by the uncertainties of Brexit and the prospect of a second Scottish independence referendum.
The UK's tectonic plates have moved and will continue to shift as its uncertain future unfolds: in this context, better to cling to nurse for fear of something worse is likely to be the response of the unionist electorate - and that means opting for direct rule, the second available alternative.
There are clearly risks posed by both another Assembly election and direct rule: the calculation by the parties, the UK and Irish governments and electors is which of those risks is the more manageable.
For Sinn Fein, confident of its momentum north and south, an Assembly election carries the possibility that both its vote and seat strength would be enhanced, thereby strengthening its call for a border poll.
Should its vote and number of seats remain largely unaltered, its bargaining position would not be diminished: it could still determine whether or not devolution will be restored by refusing to endorse Arlene Foster's presence (if she remains at the DUP's helm) in the Executive until the RHI inquiry concludes.
Even if its overall electoral performance was to decline, Sinn Fein would retain the power to block the restoration of self-government, although to do so in such circumstances would be a much riskier proposition: it would be susceptible to the justifiable charge that it was exercising its diminished power without any sense of responsibility to the people of Northern Ireland.
Unionism, in general, was already exercised by the prospect of another Assembly election. Stung by the advance of nationalism in March, it hoped/hopes that, in the event of such a contest, unionist turnout would increase significantly, most likely to the particular advantage of the DUP - preferably enabling it to regain the 30-member threshold required to unilaterally trigger the petition of concern. That hope still obtains.
It would be signalled by a DUP campaign seeking to capitalise on unionist unease by resurrecting the spectre of a Sinn Fein First Minister, buttressed by an Assembly within which nationalists constitute the majority.
Now, however, the most immediate concern for the unionist "family" is to defend its Westminster seats, making a DUP-UUP electoral pact a certainty. The only question this raises is its extent: will it expand beyond the four seats agreed by Messrs Nesbitt and Robinson in 2015? That seems a distinct possibility and will be an early test of Robin Swann's mettle.
Given the certainty of a General Election, the Secretary of State has much to ponder in weighing up the two alternatives - an early Assembly election, or the reintroduction of direct rule. In our now-altered context, how does he calculate their respective risks?
As we all know, elections spring surprises - as Mr Brokenshire, a Remainer, will not need reminding. In the light of Mrs May's decision, I think the possibility of another early Assembly election has receded.
Apart from anything else, the ill-temper that will be generated by the General Election can only aggravate relations between, particularly, the DUP and Sinn Fein: to further inflame that relationship via a simultaneous Assembly poll would border on irresponsibility.
Moreover, the uncertainties generated by elections dwarf those associated with direct rule which, when it was last reintroduced in 2002, remained in place for four-and-a-half years - and the sky didn't fall in.
This is not to imply that direct rule is an inherently better form of governance than devolution, far from it - although I have been struck by the number of people I have met recently who seem to think it preferable, as one put it, to "the shower on the hill".
As unwelcome a prospect as it would be to the denizens of Westminster and Whitehall - and their Dublin counterparts - direct rule offers some certainty and the opportunity to steer the terms of the wider political debate in Northern Ireland. It is not, however, risk-free.
More austerity, further marginalisation in relation to Brexit and the much fainter possibility of renewed violence by dissident republicans are all thinkable risks, but they may be deemed to be manageable in the shorter run.
In addition, I doubt that Mr Brokenshire - assuming, in the event of a Tory victory, he survives a summer reshuffle by Mrs May - would embark on a highly pro-active phase of direct rule: in the short-run, he will be reluctant to do anything that further complicates the return of self-government.
That goal, however, rests on the willingness of the parties to strike a deal which, in turn, rests on the ability of our political class to summon up, in Gramsci's terms, optimism of the will - something that currently is notably absent, as the General Election campaign will underline.
Dr Rick Wilford is Professor of Politics at the School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy, Queen's University, Belfast