On The Hill: First Minister Peter Robinson's 'entrance' strategy may open up new possibilities
You would imagine things are on the gloomy side up at Stormont right now. And for the most part you'd be right.
But a slight lightening of the On The Hill mood music can be detected since MLAs returned last week.
In the run-up to the summer recess the atmosphere was undoubtedly worsening with staff increasingly concerned the Assembly could still go belly-up. But there's a marginally more glass-half-full air in the corridors of power-sharing, put down mostly to Peter Robinson's initiative in his lengthy exclusive article for this newspaper last week.
It meant, of course, regaining control of the party – no one will challenge his leadership for some time now – and attempts to ratchet up the pressure on Sinn Fein over the welfare reform stalemate. But he has also changed the narrative, at least to some degree. The emphasis has subtly shifted from trying to prevent a crash to trying to fix the problem.
The DUP was the only party that could have walked away and its leader has made clear he does not want to do that.
So rather than exit strategy, the First Minister has created an entrance strategy. He is the one proposing talks, and all the other issues which have dogged progress for several years now – flags, parades and dealing with the legacy of the Troubles – can also be put on the table.
And, while they are wary of the situation further unravelling, the London and Dublin governments have also paid lip service at least to the need for new talks
The other factor in the impression of an improving overall context is, ironically enough, the death of the former First Minister, Lord Bannside.
Though he spent most of his career trying to topple power-sharing, Ian Paisley has perhaps become its guarantor.
Star MLA: Jim Allister TUV
The TUV leader had a sweet time uncovering how much the Assembly spends on free mints for MLAs, and he's not licked yet. Now he has asked the Assembly Commission – responsible for the day-to-day running of the place – for its assessment of any health risk posed by unwrapped mints being offered "in circumstances where they can be handled by multiple Members".