Belfast Telegraph

NI Election: After bruising poll punch-up, it's round two as leaders get down to talks

Former Stormont Press secretary David Gordon surveys the post-election landscape and the likelihood of a DUP-Sinn Fein deal

By David Gordon

Are Sinn Fein and the DUP going to copy David Haye and Tony Bellew? Hugging it out after a brutal battle and weeks of "trash talk"? Marking the final bell with displays of mutual respect? Or will the party prizefighters resume hostilities and go for a rematch?

After all the election hype and hyperactivity, a basic truth still remains. If there is to be a power-sharing Executive here, the DUP and Sinn Fein will be at the heart of it. They will have to find a way of working together, or devolution is not happening.

Some in both parties might be tempted by another digging match, of getting ready to rumble again.

Sinn Fein could also say to itself - the game has changed now so let's play it long.

There's uncertainty all over the place - Brexit, Scotland, a potential election in the Republic. Will it decide to make a border poll its number one priority?

The DUP, meanwhile, could conclude that direct rule or even another election aren't such bad things.

Given the Sinn Fein electoral surge, you can guarantee that unionist unity and unionist turnout will be major themes of the next Assembly poll.

And for all its damaging losses last week, it has still, if anything, tightened its grip on unionism, given the UUP's woes and the TUV's failure to make inroads.

The last DUP-Sinn Fein Executive collapsed in the most spectacular and acrimonious of circumstances. Yet the two parties still triumphed comfortably over the Opposition.

That's a remarkable situation.

So will they now grind out an agreement?

Don't underestimate the difficulties they face. The big issues that divide them aren't a creation of the Stormont bubble. They divide the two electorates that support them.

Pundits and professors can pontificate or advise from the sidelines all they want. They don't have to face voters every few years, or indeed every few months. There are other complications in these particular negotiations. Deals can come down to relationships, trust and respect. These factors can't be manufactured by the drafting of wordy position papers.

There is a tight timescale with the threat of an election looming if there's no agreement in three to four weeks. That deadline could be extended by the Secretary of State, but that would also prolong the period of government limbo land with no ministers or budget in place. It won't be very long before that uncertainty starts impacting on public services.

There's also Sinn Fein's insistence that Arlene Foster will not return to the post of First Minister before the RHI inquiry is completed.

There may actually be some advantages for the DUP in its leader stepping aside from Stormont ministerial duties for a period - taking her out of the firing line and the constant attacks from all quarters, allowing her to make her case to the inquiry.

However, there is a growing assumption that the public inquiry will not be concluded until 2018. That's a long stepping aside time. It's also essential for the inquiry for its timetable and work to be totally free from any political considerations.

Here's the other central truth that could yet push the talks towards a deal. It's hard if not impossible to see any real winners under direct rule.

For all the criticisms thrown at MLAs and ministers, there are not too many advocates of Theresa May's government taking control.

During a previous crisis at Stormont - over welfare reform - Martin McGuinness gave a speech to Sinn Fein activists warning of the dangers of "unfettered Tory rule".

That still rings true.

It's not going to be the type of direct rule that we got after devolution collapsed in 2002.

Back then Northern Ireland was very near the top of Prime Minister Tony Blair's agenda (below). Public spending wasn't being subjected to austerity squeezes either.

Now money is too tight to mention, and the May government has the Brexit negotiations to occupy all its waking thoughts.

Don't expect too much by way of practical assistance from Trump's White House either.

Back in the early years after the 2002 collapse, the talk was of government here being kept in "warm storage" under direct rule. Nothing too radical on the policy front, the place kept ticking along until devolution returned. That changed under Peter Hain, when more controversial policies like water charges were pushed.

The chances are that Tory direct rule would become more like the Hain era sooner rather than later. Secretary of State James Brokenshire might not want to do anything too dramatic, particularly early on, but budgetary pressures will mean that some unpopular decisions can't be ducked.

Will he look at those policy areas where people here enjoy a better deal than his constituents in England? Will household taxes, student fees and welfare reform protections be in his sights?

There's an awful lot at stake in the talks at Stormont.

Like Haye and Bellew late on Saturday night, we're all a bit punch drunk already. But it's the only show in town.

Belfast Telegraph


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