Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: One small step for our leaders, a giant leap for Stormont?

Editor's Viewpoint

For many months politics in Northern Ireland has been marked by the toxicity of relationships between the two largest parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein. It seemed that the rift between them was deepening to the point where a restoration of devolved government was not merely unlikely but improbable.

The public pessimism was not lightened by the fact that the two party leaders, Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill, appeared to have no empathy for each others' positions and, indeed, merely added to the frostiness between the parties whenever they spoke.

However, it should be remembered that this has been a year of elections - a year when the two parties were appealing to their core supporters to ensure the maximum return from the polls. This appeal, which was often overtly sectarian, proved a good vote-catching tactic leaving both parties as the virtually unchallenged representatives of their constituencies.

So now that the temperature has cooled somewhat over the summer months with politics in abeyance, is there any hope that they can use their electoral strengths to overcome the problems which have left politics here deadlocked since Martin McGuinness's resignation in January brought down the Executive?

The attendance of Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill at a Methodist-run event in Castlewellan, as revealed in this newspaper today, may not represent a breakthrough but it shows the two leaders in a different light from that which the public usually sees.

In public forums political conversations are often conducted at a high decibel level with opposing parties adopting absolutist positions.

The finger of blame is pointed at each other rather than any acceptance that each may have valid points to make. The two party leaders made some interesting observations in their Castlewellan encounter - not least that they had texted each other on the way to the event.

Of course they come from diametrically opposed political standpoints - one for the Union, the other for an united Ireland - but should that mean they can never agree on anything? The answer would seem to be no, as there appeared to be a genuine desire to make political progress.

Interestingly, the Sinn Fein leader described her opposite number as someone she can work with and that there are many areas of common ground.

Both also showed a human side which is not always evident - Arlene Foster on the tough times she endured over the RHI scandal and Michelle O'Neill becoming tearful when talking about the late Mr McGuinness.

While this was a semi-private occasion, both were well aware that in today's world of social media nothing remains secret for very long. So it was encouraging that they were prepared to show at least an understanding of each other's position. The Sinn Fein leader was candid on why she attends commemorations for dead IRA members, but said that would not preclude her from working for greater inclusiveness in society here, even if many unionists see her as glorifying terrorism.

Both were adamant that they wanted the institutions of government here restored and both are well aware that public patience is wearing thin on this issue.

It would be wrong to overstate the importance of this meeting, but even an indication of a slight thaw in the relationship between the parties is to be welcomed. All progress begins with a single step in the right direction.


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