Belfast Telegraph

Stormont summit: First faltering steps on a long and uncertain road

By Brian Rowan

A stone's throw from Parliament Buildings, the perfectly named Storm in a Teacup bistro said it all about this particular Stormont day.

And perhaps there was another message or warning in the wet autumn leaves that blanketed the nearby footpaths.

For this was a day for measured words and steps, a day when unionists talked down Dublin's role in the negotiations and nationalists talked it up.

And one thing is already clear: if these discussions are to go anywhere, then some of the participants are going to have to get over themselves.

One veteran journalist described them as "Peter's Talks" – meaning they are being shaped and managed by Secretary of State Theresa Villiers to meet the needs of the First Minister and DUP leader Mr Robinson. If that is the case, they will fail.

Martin McGuinness described current relationships in the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister as "absolutely appalling" and accused the DUP of showing "utter contempt" for this latest talks process.

That was because of their absence from the morning session, attended by the Secretary of State, Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan and four of the five Executive parties.

Peter Robinson's non-appearance was no surprise. He had made it clear he wasn't interested in what he called a "showpiece" or "circus act" beginning for the sake of the media. Instead, as signalled, his party held separate talks with Ms Villiers.

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt did attend with party colleague Michael McGimpsey, a senior unionist negotiator when David Trimble began the power-sharing arrangements with Sinn Fein almost 15 years ago. Nesbitt talked later about a "big agenda" and the bar now being higher than it was for the Haass talks on flags, parades and the past.

The money issues – budgets and welfare reform – make these negotiations an even bigger challenge this time around.

But the detail, where the devil of these discussions still lies, has yet to be tackled and it's here that the talks will either succeed or fail.

The magpies that sat in twos around the the grounds of Stormont were maybe trying to send out a positive message, some sign of hope. But any optimism needs to be matched by leadership.

Sinn Fein has lost confidence in Peter Robinson, and the DUP believes that, on welfare reform, Martin McGuinness was overruled by Gerry Adams. If this summit is ever going to work, it is going to take new thinking and leadership. Not on the part of one or two leaders, but all the leaders and the governments and marginalised communities.

The weeks of these negotiations can't be reduced to unionists playing hide-and-seek with Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan. These talks are about saving Stormont and the political process. That will mean all hands on deck.

Belfast Telegraph


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