In films, it’s known as a MacGuffin. It’s the thing that makes all the characters in the story chase about like headless chickens, but which ultimately turns out to be meaningless in itself. A classic example is The Maltese Falcon: Humphrey Bogart spends the whole movie in search of the eponymous statuette, only to realise in the end that it has no value whatsoever.
For all the show of togetherness by the five main parties on the BBC’s Sunday Politics show yesterday, the Stormont deal which brought about this weekend’s restoration of power-sharing may turn out to be the biggest MacGuffin of all.
For three years devolved rule has been suspended and unionists and nationalists have been at each other’s throats over what they claimed were vital matters of principle.
Suddenly, just because they’ve all run out of things to do and say to keep the story going, those principles turn out to have been as insubstantial as smoke and they’ve reset the clock to early 2017 with not much to show for the trouble and strife in between.
Sinn Fein has got a deal which satisfies few of the “red lines” it set down on the Irish language and which also keeps Arlene Foster as First Minister when republicans said they couldn’t stand her in charge for a moment longer after the cash-for-ash scandal.
The DUP, meanwhile, can present the deal as a long-delayed return to work, which gives them a few more flag days and a Commissioner for Ulster British Identity to sell to the grassroots — even if the Irish Government looks suspiciously more involved in Northern Ireland’s internal affairs than ever before; but it’s not clear what Democratic Unionists won which wasn’t available early in 2018 to justify holding out for so long.
Whatever solace they take from the restoration of devolved government, people in Northern Ireland are entitled to look at the deal which brought it back and ask: is that it? Is that really what the parties were willing to sacrifice everything for?
Despite fears from some unionists that they’ve given too much away, this background hubbub merely disguises the fact that not much has changed at all.
The petition of concern will be reformed, in ways not altogether clear, but there is still nothing but goodwill to stop the whole thing collapsing again.
There’s not even going to be an election. There’s an argument that people are sick of elections at this stage, but it shouldn’t be possible for the two main parties to just act as if nothing happened in the past three years that the Executive wasn’t in place and to return to Stormont without giving voters a chance to have their say on what they thought of the carry-on.
The DUP’s Diane Dodds (left) wasn’t even an MLA until a couple of days before Christmas, when she was “selected” to replace new MP Carla Lockhart in Upper Bann, and now she’s Economy Minister. That’s hardly accountability.
Both the DUP and Sinn Fein lost a serious amount of votes in last month’s general election and must be heaving a sigh of relief that they’ve dodged a date with the electorate for another while, despite the fact that an election is due.
That the Assembly wasn’t sitting for three of the years since the last one is beside the point. Time didn’t stop just because ministers at Stormont stopped doing their jobs.
Inexplicably, smaller parties, such as Alliance and the SDLP, who did well in December, have gone along with this anti-democratic stitch-up, thereby losing the momentum which they’d built up and which could have carried them through to greater strength in a genuinely new Assembly.
An election was used as a threat in case of no deal, when it should have been seen as an opportunity. This was the ideal time for Alliance, SDLP and the Ulster Unionists to assert themselves.
Instead, they waited meekly and mildly on the sidelines, pretending unconvincingly that their participation in a patched-up Executive was in any doubt, while the big boys got on with the real business.
The Assembly, which will get under way properly tomorrow after Saturday’s procedural formalities, is not new. What the two governments did was find the barest minimum which could revive the old Stormont, while addressing none of the structural deficiencies which meant it kept falling apart.
There has been some tinkering. Officials will be present at all future ministerial meetings and the health service will get an overdue injection of cash. An end to the nurses’ dispute is finally in sight.
Both Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill (below) are also pledging to press the Executive’s nose to the grindstone in the coming months to tackle Northern Ireland’s urgent needs, and, while the short-lived experiment in having an official Opposition is now over, all parties were solemnly pledging on TV yesterday to “hold each other to account”. Whatever that means.
But there will be just as many overpaid special advisers as before and legacy issues remain a huge obstacle. Dealing with the past hasn’t magically got any easier.
More ominously, both parties are already trying to head off internal grumblings by raising expectations of what’s really possible.
Sinn Fein is still talking up the prospect of a border poll and the DUP is still insisting it’s thus far and no further for nationalist ambitions.
“New Decade, New Approach” looks more like a catchy soundbite dreamed up by media gurus in London and Dublin than a message which those who are expected to put it into action have taken to heart.
After three difficult years, during which wrangling over Brexit has destabilised everything — filling republican heads with visions of imminent Irish unity and distracting unionists with grandiose dreams of power-broking at Westminster — a period of calm may be enough for now.
Starting over can be cathartic. Not having an immediate election may even give the DUP and Sinn Fein an incentive to make the boring, day-to-day stuff of government work before facing disgruntled voters again.
But it’s worth remembering that this whole crisis was engendered by a demand that there be no return to the status quo and, for all the tentative, wounded hope raised by this weekend’s renewed transmissions from Stormont, the Assembly looks suspiciously like the status quo.
It’s probably churlish to spoil the celebratory mood with undue cynicism, but those who dared to dream of the possibility of something different and something better emerging from the wreckage of the past three years have had a rude awakening.
They’re effectively being asked to put their faith again in the way things were before.
After all that’s happened, that’s asking a lot.