Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Next time we blame politicians for lack of progress, we should ask who put them there... we did

It's a bit rich of Bradley and Coveney to hector the NI parties when you consider their own role in the shambles, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Simon Coveney and Karen Bradley at Stormont on Friday
Simon Coveney and Karen Bradley at Stormont on Friday
Arlene Foster, Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill at the funeral of Lyra McKee
Eilis O'Hanlon

By Eilis O'Hanlon

The most striking image from Lyra McKee's funeral was the standing ovation when the priest at St Anne's Cathedral, Fr Martin Magill, begged politicians in the congregation, including former First Minister Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O'Neill, to make her murder "a doorway to a new beginning".

The week duly ended with Secretary of State Karen Bradley and Tanaiste Simon Coveney standing together in Stormont to announce a new start date for talks to end the political stalemate, with both insisting that "the excuses need to end".

The joint message was clear - let the murder of this innocent young woman be the last atrocity. "We owe that to the memory of Lyra, in particular, but to many others too," declared Coveney with grim-faced determination.

The mood in the country since Lyra's murder has presented a powerful narrative of hope and renewal and one with a seductive simplicity for the national British and southern Irish media, which, confused by detail, just wants a simple morality tale.

But isn't there something slightly cynical about the way that politicians in London and Dublin have picked up and run with the challenge laid down by Fr Magill last week, as if they are the only adults in a room filled with unruly, disobedient children?

Seeing Bradley and Coveney standing in Stormont, urging a return to reasonableness, a gullible onlooker could be forgiven for thinking that the deadlock had nothing whatsoever to do with them.

How much is the reconvening of talks about ring-fencing the two of them from blame for the collective failure to find a solution as it is about, well, finding a solution?

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The Tanaiste's manner was particularly haughty.

In Dublin he also holds the office of Minister for Foreign Affairs, in which capacity he has responsibility for Northern Ireland affairs.

How convenient that his own government's role in stoking nationalists' sense of grievance since taking office is being conveniently forgotten.

From the start Coveney was criticised by unionists for his "clumsy" and "aggressive" interventions, not least by raising the spectre of joint authority when talks teetered, forcing the British Government to reiterate that Northern Ireland sovereignty was not up for auction.

Coveney has resisted the urge to repeat his demand that "there can be no British, only direct rule", but it would have shown some welcome humility, as he chided the local parties for their political failings, to admit that he had made serious mistakes of his own.

Instead, he played the headteacher, ticking off the class dunces for letting everyone down.

In the Secretary of State's case, she's more like a supply teacher with zero authority who continually issues threats which the class knows will never be carried out.

Her culpability lies in presiding over a year and more of stagnation since she took office in the middle of the crisis.

Bradley cannot, in all good conscience, now stand there and pretend that her own government has not enabled the naysayers, not least because it relies for its survival on one of the parties in the stand-off.

The DUP and Sinn Fein deserve every criticism for digging in their heels since former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness recklessly collapsed the power-sharing Executive in January 2017.

There could have been an agreement on the question of an Irish Language Act last February if Arlene Foster had stood firm against her own critics.

Likewise, for Sinn Fein to keep pretending that it's reasonable to link the return of devolved government with same-sex marriage and abortion is beyond absurd.

The Republic only enshrined those rights comparatively recently.

It's a bit rich to now act as if not having them yet in Northern Ireland is an affront too far. We'll get there in time.

While it's satisfying to see party leaders squirm when called out on their self-indulgent stubbornness, there is another elephant in the room, though, and that's the fact these are still the parties which command the largest support in Northern Ireland and will most likely continue to do so at the coming local and European elections.

In the 2017 Assembly elections the DUP and Sinn Fein jointly garnered 56% of the vote. In the Westminster election a few months later that rose to over 60%. That's more than half-a-million votes.

Every DUP voter knew the party would continue to hold fast against a standalone Irish Language Act and every Sinn Fein voter knew that the party would likewise hold out for one, to the neglect of more urgent issues, such as health.

Time and again those offering alternatives to this dysfunctional duopoly have been rejected at the ballot box.

When the message goes out that "the excuses need to end", perhaps it's voters as well as elected representatives who need to heed it.

For good and bad, they're a part of who we are.

The electorate can't be entirely blamed for making bad choices. The way the power-sharing Executive was set up by the Belfast Agreement made it inevitable that support would leak to whichever of the parties each side deemed strong enough to stand up to the other.

Power goes to the last two standing, so voting for a smaller party, urging compromise, ultimately risks weakening either unionism or nationalism. Why take the risk?

Within a few short years, voting for the hard man in the room became the predictable norm, even as those who warned that this would happen were dismissed as doomsayers.

How to break that cycle remains the unanswerable question.

TUV leader Jim Allister talks about making Stormont a coalition of the willing, by allowing any parties which can find agreement with one another to form a government, as they would in any other representative system.

If that excludes either of the two main parties, then so be it. That's democracy. Would it work? Arguably not.

But we'll never know, because London and Dublin refuse to countenance changing how the system works - or, rather, how it doesn't. For that, they're as guilty as the parties themselves of encouraging this endless merry-go-round.

It could be that this moment will be different. One positive development is that the smaller parties, such as the UUP, SDLP and Alliance, will now be invited along to talks, when before they were excluded.

They should never have been left outside the door.

That may shift the dynamic back towards accommodation, rather than inflexibility, but, if it doesn't, then it would be dishonest not to admit we're all partly responsible - not just those who it's politically advantageous to blame in the emotional aftermath of Lyra McKee's murder.

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