Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Is all this talk of agreement just that ... all talk and no action?

 

Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald
Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald
SDLP’s Colum Eastwood
DUP's Arlene Foster
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn
Simon Coveney, the Republic’s Minister for Foreign Affairs

Arlene Foster used her New Year message to reiterate the DUP's willingness to restore Stormont if a "balanced agreement" can be found. In turn Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald insisted that republicans are "ready for talks to establish a new Executive working in genuine power-sharing".

Anyone who hadn't read previous New Year messages could be forgiven for detecting glimmers of hope in this mutual readiness to get back round the table.

Sadly, the fact that the two women still disagree about practically everything substantive suggests that the Champagne might need to be put on ice again.

That's why, of all the leaders, it was the SDLP's Colum Eastwood who unexpectedly delivered the most significant one.

Not because of its content, which was the usual assortment of buzzwords and platitudes in which all political figures indulge at this time of year, but because it might be the last ever delivered by a leader of the SDLP.

Within weeks a party that was once dominant within nationalism in Northern Ireland is set to announce a merger with what, historically, has been the largest, most successful political party in the Republic.

The mooted joining together of Fianna Fail and the SDLP is being described as a "phased integration", which, considering the difference in size and power between the two sides, sounds a tad optimistic.

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A fat man and a pie are both involved in the act of eating, but it's hardly a relationship of equals. Instead, he gobbles it up.

It's not hard to figure out who's playing the role of the pie in this drama.

The move contains considerable risks for both sides.

On the one hand, the SDLP will be able to draw on the organisational and tactical muscle of Fianna Fail.

That might help even up the odds a little when it comes to taking on Sinn Fein, removing at a stroke the latter's claim to be the only all-island political party.

On the other hand, it will discombobulate those who've worked for decades to maintain the SDLP's integrity as a unique voice for constitutional nationalism.

They will understandably feel snubbed, and keeping them in the dark until now has not helped matters.

For Fianna Fail, it shows imagination to look ahead to a new politics of the future, but it does risk dragging the party into some uniquely Northern spats, monopolising its energies and diluting its brand. The short-term rewards are not immediately obvious.

The first opportunity to put the new arrangement to the test is set to come at the local elections on the first Thursday in May, when 462 council seats will be up for grabs.

The DUP was the runaway winner in 2014, which may explain why Mrs Foster concentrated so heavily on geeing up her base for the upcoming challenge in her New Year's message.

Tellingly, she seemed to indicate that the battle in May will be fought on the field of cultural identity, specifically the need for republicans to respect the unionist ethos.

If previous elections are anything to go by, that could easily unravel into sectarian fractiousness. Local elections can get dirty.

For its part, Sinn Fein will be looking to capitalise on its success at the 2017 general election, when the party came within a single percentage point of the DUP.

Republicans will want to put on a good show this year, marking as it does the centenary of the first Dail.

It's another test for novice leader Mary Lou McDonald following a disappointing performance for the party in the Irish Presidential election last October, when its candidate trailed a distant fourth. Support down south remains on a downward trend in polls.

In any normal year, May would be the focus of attention, but of course this isn't going to be a normal year. Between now and then there's Brexit to get through in the shape of the March 29 deadline when the UK, including Northern Ireland, is set to leave the EU. Either that will happen or it won't - and if it doesn't, that will either be because it's been postponed or cancelled altogether - and it would be a reckless gambler who was prepared to bet the farm on which of the various possible outcomes will prevail over the coming months.

Whichever way it goes, Northern Ireland will be in the eye of the storm. The risks to border security have arguably been exaggerated by those keen to thwart Brexit, but political uncertainty looks unavoidable for the foreseeable future. There may even be a general election to complicate matters further.

It won't essentially change anything in Northern Ireland, though having a lifelong supporter of Irish unity as Prime Minister, should Jeremy Corbyn win a snap poll, would certainly take the process into uncharted waters; but it will all string out even further the local decisions which are crying out to be made.

That the restoration of Stormont is taking a back seat to Brexit says it all. It's now a full two years since Sinn Fein brought down the devolved Assembly in a blaze of glory; and if it had foreseen how hard it would be to get it back up and running, would the party have been so gung ho about it?

As Ms McDonald says in her New Year's message: "Every day that the Executive is suspended undermines the political institutions."

Some might humbly suggest that the party should have anticipated that problem from the beginning; but assigning retrospective blame won't solve the impasse.

The problem is that it's not entirely clear what would solve it at this stage.

It increasingly feels as if the best opportunity to reach agreement on specific issues such as the Irish language has passed, and that, even if the conditions for a deal could be recreated with a new round of negotiations, any resulting goodwill would quickly get bogged down in the quagmire of the larger constitutional questions. The Republic's Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said that he doesn't expect Stormont to be restored "unless and until there is a settled position on Brexit". He's surely not wrong, but the chances of that happening were not advanced by those New Year's messages.

Mrs Foster repeated her desire for Britain to leave the EU with a "sensible deal". Ms McDonald stressed again her party's position that "there is no good or positive Brexit for the north".

This goes beyond mere policy divisions. It's an existential divide, as deep in many ways as the gulf between unionism and nationalism itself, and it cannot be resolved until the Brexit hurdle is overcome, one way or another.

With Dublin and London also bitterly divided on that score, it's unlikely that 2019 will herald the longed for breakthrough.

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