Belfast Telegraph

Alex Kane: I'm the Eeyore of political commentary, but this time I believe the parties will do a deal

If both Sinn Fein and the DUP reckon the disadvantages of an early election outweigh the advantages, then the chances of agreement have to be high, writes Alex Kane

Arlene Foster
Arlene Foster
Michelle O’Neill
Alex Kane

By Alex Kane

There was a chance, albeit just a chance, in the first few days of January 2017 that Sinn Fein and the DUP could patch up the spat over the increasing number of differences between them.

The Brexit result in June 2016 had thrown up an "England's misfortune is Ireland's opportunity" moment that Sinn Fein hadn't quite worked out how to play to best advantage, while the BBC Northern Ireland Spotlight revelations about RHI in December (and no one had any idea how big that story was to become at that point) had placed Arlene Foster in a very uncomfortable position.

Yet, over the Christmas period in 2016 and into the New Year, there remained a quiet expectation that the usual "emergency sticking plaster" would be found at the last moment and the Assembly would go back to what passes for normal in local politics.

But Martin McGuinness's resignation letter on January 9, which set out a long list of problems with the DUP/Sinn Fein relationship (problems which some of us had been writing about for years, by the way), blew all expectations out of the water.

We may never know the full, thought-through strategy behind Sinn Fein's decision to crash the Assembly and force an election, but that was clearly the deliberate, planned-for effect of McGuinness's letter. The rest is history.

And, as we know with history in Northern Ireland, it ensures that the past is always in front of us, making it very difficult to reach jointly agreed decisions about the present.

It looks to me as if all of the problems dogging the DUP/Sinn Fein relationship are pretty much as they were three years ago.

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I'm not persuaded by background noises from the NIO, Irish Government and even some of those briefing from within the parties that the differences between the key players are "relatively small" and that "significant progress" has been made.

So, with the latest round of talks due to resume today - and with the deadline for agreement still set for January 13 - what are the chances of success?

A lot will depend on whether the DUP and Sinn Fein are jointly wary of another election, or jointly sanguine about the possibility.

My sense is they'd prefer not to have one: not simply because they took a joint hit on December 12, but also because they may be genuinely worried that the ongoing Alliance "surge" could, in a PR election, be accompanied by progress for a tail-up SDLP and maybe some of the smaller parties.

The DUP will also be concerned that two or three UUP seats (and maybe a couple of their own) are vulnerable to Alliance, meaning that the present 40 unionist to 50 non-unionist balance in the Assembly could shift to 35-55.

There would be an obvious temptation for Sinn Fein to risk an election, hoping that unionism would take yet another hit to add to those of the 2017 Assembly election, the 2019 Euro elections and December's general election.

But with an election due in the Republic in a matter of weeks (and bearing in mind its own poor performances in the southern Euro and council elections last summer and significant slippage here in December) it would probably suit the party to cobble together a deal, as much for the southern audience as for anyone else.

If those two interests coincide - in other words, both parties reckon the potential disadvantages of an election outweigh the possible advantages - then the chances of a deal must be viewed as quite high.

It doesn't, of course, mean that the deal would deliver a genuinely co-operative, power-sharing government moving in the same direction and with an agreed Programme for Government. But it would mean that there would be a government making decisions on health, education and so on.

But - and there's always a "but" in these talks processes - what about the Irish Language Act? That's what crashed the last process in February 2018.

Sinn Fein insists it remains a red line. The DUP has blurred its own stance and Arlene Foster has mentioned in a couple of conference speeches about some sort of broader "cultural Act", embracing Irish, Ulster-Scots and other aspects of culture that matter to both sides.

Can the DUP sell that to its base, though, something it very obviously didn't do last time? Probably, is my hunch.

In 2018 (with the comfort blanket of a deal with the Conservatives and a very weak, inexperienced Secretary of State), an Assembly deal wasn't a necessity for the DUP. It is now. The DUP needs a power base and the Assembly is the obvious choice.

That said, I think Foster would be hard-pushed to sell both a significant shift on Irish language as well as a reform of the petition of concern (another huge issue for the other parties) which would lessen the DUP's ability, along with other unionist MLAs, to effectively veto what they would see as troublesome issues.

The one big card the DUP has in its hand is that it is still very likely to remain the largest party in the Assembly if there was an election. So, while it is prepared to compromise over the next few days, it won't roll over simply to avoid an election.

Sinn Fein and Alliance (which, understandably, is the only party relishing an election) must be careful about pushing the DUP too hard at this point.

Regular readers will be aware of my reputation as the Eeyore of political commentary. I tend to hear the distant thunder, rather than bother with the rainbow glimmering through the clouds.

On this occasion, though, I think a deal is very likely. Indeed, I would be genuinely surprised - which I rarely am - if the Assembly isn't rebooted fairly soon.

But I will still find it hard to work up any excitement about it. It won't be a proper breakthrough, because it will be a deal based on self-serving, self-interest; done to avoid the potential risks of an election rather than reflect the "message" Sinn Fein and the DUP claim to have heard on the doorstep during the last campaign.

Let me finish with one new year plea to all of them. Even if you do manage to cut a deal and hit the reset button, please make sure to include some sort of mechanism which allows you to: a) respond quickly and effectively to the recommendations and conclusions of the RHI report; b) pick problems out, one at a time, which have been kicked into the long grass since 1998 and make sure they're properly addressed and resolved; c) make a collective, genuine, stick-to-it commitment to govern together in the best interests of everyone in Northern Ireland - it isn't necessary to reduce every issue to an us-and-them squabble; and d) dump the self-destructive mantra that "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed".

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