Editor's Viewpoint: Voters give NI parties plenty to think about
Following last week's historic general election and the Tories' trouncing of Labour, there is one clear message from the results here - the electorate in Northern Ireland is totally fed up with the sterility of local politics.
In just four weeks' time, it will be exactly three years since we had a functioning Assembly and Executive. It is therefore not surprising that our voters' patience, which is already gossamer thin, was completely exhausted by the time they went to choose their candidate last Thursday.
While the DUP's dramatic loss of North Belfast, as well as its failure to take North Down, which it had high hopes of winning, and its reduced majorities elsewhere can be interpreted as electoral punishment for mistakes over Brexit, no less than the SDLP rout of Sinn Fein in Foyle, or the Alliance triumph in Lady Hermon's seat in North Down, it represented the electorate's combined howl of frustration at the continued Stormont deadlock.
The painful slow-motion car crash collapse of our NHS in the run-up to polling day also effectively became a metaphor for the lack of progress in restoring devolution.
With a 24-hour strike by health workers planned for Wednesday and the separate warning by teachers' unions about children going hungry over Christmas without free school meals, the stakes could not be higher for the parties convening at Stormont today. The Sword of Damocles hanging over the DUP and Sinn Fein must be concentrating minds wonderfully, and should this week's talks fail to bear fruit, in such a limited time-scale, the Northern Ireland Secretary could call fresh elections for March 2020.
Colum Eastwood's resounding victory in Foyle and Stephen Farry's triumph in North Down - all the sweeter for being unexpected - should give both the big parties much food for thought.
Both party leaders, Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill, writing in today's newspaper, are identifying sustainability as a key requisite for restoring government at Stormont.
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The DUP leader commits her party to building "sustainable institutions which can't be unilaterally collapsed again", while her Sinn Fein northern counterpart says that the institutions must be restored on a "credible and sustainable basis".
While identifying the nature and scale of the obstacles to restoration is a first step, it is a far cry from creating a credible and durable settlement.
For once, the DUP and Sinn Fein seem to be starting on the same page. For the sake of our NHS and the malnourished children, we devoutly hope that they will find an agreement.
One thing is certain - if they don't, Northern Ireland's revitalised electoral centre ground will punish them yet again at the next election.