Crunch talks on future of Stormont: There's little hope of 'big five' parties striking a deal
The Executive parties meet today in the latest bid to hammer out agreement on outstanding issues. But a political carve-up that can't be sold on the streets solves nothing, says Brian Rowan
A tweet by the Justice Minister, David Ford, yesterday morning said it all about the messy and muddled build-up to the latest negotiations. "Have put off full day of meetings in London to attend five-party talks. They will only be a circus if people act like clowns," he wrote.
Ford was returning the serve, responding to comments several days earlier from First Minister Peter Robinson, who described the planned opening to negotiations as "a showpiece" and "a circus act" for the sake of the media.
The DUP leader said his interest was in the real work for these talks; the arrangements for government at Stormont as well as budget and welfare reform issues.
But, from many of those who will be involved in these negotiations, you hear little confidence, rather lines that describe no expectation, or at best low expectation, of success.
"I can't see it lasting," one source commented, before using the words "from the bizarre to the ridiculous" to describe the build-up. "A bad situation continues to deteriorate," was another thought expressed by another source. This is the low bar, rather than the high bar, of expectation.
Participation is another contentious issue. Who will be at the table and who won't? Unionists see the role of the Irish government as "observer status" unless the discussions get as far as addressing the past. But there are many jumps to clear before that point.
"If you don't start with the money [a reference to budgets and welfare reform], then there's no point," a senior unionist commented. And this source offered another thought, that the talks are "primarily, but not exclusively, for the five Executive parties".
This opens out a possible discussion about when and where it would be appropriate to involve others – including from the loyalist community.
"The Progressive Unionist Party's position is clear regarding talks," spokesman Winston Irvine said. "In the past, when talks have been inclusive, they have been successful. The legacy of the loyalist ceasefire and Belfast Agreement are evidence of this." So, he argues, the PUP should be involved.
"The representation of loyalist concerns is essential and these concerns range from the legitimate expression of culture through to increasing poverty and disadvantage," Irvine said.
In the build-up to talks, the marching stand-off on the Woodvale and Ardoyne interface has been the focus of much time and attention aimed at shaping some new initiative.
And the PUP and west Belfast UPRG, as well as senior representatives from the Orange Order, have been part of a combined unionist delegation involved in protracted talks with Secretary of State Theresa Villiers.
There was more of that talking this week, as clarification continues to be sought about the role of a proposed four-member panel that will be tasked with bringing forward a report on the north Belfast situation by January 31.
Unionists had asked for a "time-bound commission of inquiry with the necessary legal powers". But there is no mention of inquiry in the terms of reference and the plan is the panel will come from academia and civil society.
So, this week unionists quizzed Ms Villiers about the role of the panel chair and the powers that chair will have when appointed. What status would the report have, stressing that it must make recommendations rather than observations? And what if there is no nationalist buy-in?
According to one source, the Secretary of State expressed the view that there is no significance in using the term "panel", rather than "inquiry". She made clear the NIO will co-operate and hopes the PSNI, the Department of Justice and Parades Commission will do likewise.
And she told the unionist delegation she was still working on nationalist support. Further clarification is likely to be given in writing. But there is not even the slightest hint that Sinn Fein, or the SDLP, can be brought inside this initiative.
"What nationalist with any credibility would sit on it [the panel]?" one senior republican asked. An SDLP source made clear he hadn't and nor would he be persuaded by the Secretary of State on the question of supporting the panel as proposed.
The real question is whether any panel or inquiry will change anything on that contested stretch of road in north Belfast. Or will this stand-off be back with the Parades Commission next July?
Part of the Haass process last year was about trying to establish a new structure to rule on marching and protests. But is there any point in calling the Parades Commission by some other title if it changes nothing on the ground?
A move to some new structure will only be worthwhile if some agreement can be achieved in north Belfast – and that needs a much wider conversation than the five Executive parties.
It needs the representatives of the Orange Order, loyalists, the local residents groups, CARA and GARC, and the police involved in a conversation. And it will mean compromises.
If that can't be achieved by a panel, then some thought needs to be given to how some other process can feed into the bigger talks.
But Winston Irvine warns: "The issue of Twaddell [Avenue] cannot be fudged. But the issue of cultural expression and parades is much wider than Twaddell. The talks must engage with the issue of the failure of the Parades Commission and what can replace it." And this is before the unanswered questions and the poisons of the past even begin to be addressed.
"The ongoing issues about the legacy of the past and victims and survivors of the conflict cannot be fully resolved and dealt with effectively without the voice and participation of loyalists," added Irvine.
So these talks will be hugely difficult.
And the point is there is no point in political agreements that can't be sold and that will change nothing. No point in negotiations that don't have the right people at the right tables. Raising false hopes will achieve nothing and, however these latest talks begin, they start at a very low bar.
"At least with Haass, there was a strategy," one non-political source commented. "This is a complete and utter horlicks."
And that comment describes the mood at the beginning of another beginning that many fear will go nowhere. This is because the atmosphere is so poisonous as this process starts another phase of talking and not talking.
These negotiations may well determine whether Stormont can be saved.
Liam Clarke is away