Belfast Telegraph

Testing times up on the Hill but still too early to say if parties will pass or fail

Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire will lead round-table all-party talks aimed at resurrecting political powersharing
Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire will lead round-table all-party talks aimed at resurrecting political powersharing

By Noel McAdam

It's final exams week at Stormont - and still no one knows if the parties will pass. But going on the evidence yesterday, the graduation gowns can be kept in mothballs for a while yet.

Certainly, all five parties are poring over their papers, studying hard, scratching their heads. The question is whether they come up with the answers. There's a big prize day being planned for tomorrow in the Assembly if they do - with the handout of portfolios if the Executive is restored.

And there was a different feel to the talking yesterday, compared to the last several months. It seemed more like 'game on' than at any other point since Sinn Fein pulled the plug on the Assembly in January.

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They have been burning the midnight oil these past few nights and the sense is of ground being prepared for a soft landing come the official deadline - enshrined in legislation - of 4pm tomorrow.

It was as if the £1 billion windfall secured by the DUP had injected fresh momentum - yet there was more to it than that. By mid-afternoon there had already been one, albeit relatively brief, round-table session involving the DUP, Sinn Fein, SDLP, Ulster Unionist and Alliance teams, along with the British and Irish Governments, with another planned for tea-time.

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Yet there was no progress being reported in terms of the core issues of a stand-alone Irish Language Act, same-sex marriage and a Bill of Rights.

You can always tell when things get serious in Stormont negotiations. There is an inverse proportion of nothing-to-see-here party meetings to effusive appearances at the media phalanx of cameras and microphones.

When the talking gets intensive the Press conferences dramatically drop in number. Yesterday afternoon only two of the participants ventured, blinking, out into the sunshine - Secretary of State James Brokenshire and a group from Sinn Fein headed by national chairperson Declan Kearney. The two men saw the glass as half full and half empty respectively.

Mr Brokenshire was as upbeat as possible. He was not contemplating anything other than the return of a fully inclusive power-sharing Executive and, while there were still difficulties, there was "intensive engagement" and the "shared endeavour that had defined how Northern Ireland has moved forward in recent years".

Mr Kearney, in contrast, appeared sullen and irritated. The DUP was refusing to budge on anything, he said. If 17 days hadn't been "wasted" in talks between the British Government and the DUP, they might be "further on".

Later on the DUP's Edwin Poots came out warning Sinn Fein against "high wire acts" and suggesting a "parallel process" leaving outstanding issues unresolved but putting an Executive up anyway.

So a bit more tutoring might be required to get a deal over the line. Like the best prepped pupils, the participants know all the questions. And they have spent ages on revision.

Part of the problem is that Mr Brokenshire and his Dublin counterpart Simon Coveney are more like chairmen on the board of governors rather than headmasters.

When there's no headmaster a school tends to get rather unruly.

A pass with distinction seems unlikely at this stage.

And today should tell whether even a borderline pass remains feasible - or we are looking at a fail.

Belfast Telegraph


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