Belfast Telegraph

Alban Maginness: Sinn Fein and DUP haven't just seen the light - they were forced back to work by an irate electorate

Julian Smith and Simon Coveney deserve credit, too, for getting warring parties around the table, says Alban Maginness

The nurses’ strike combined with the political nous of Simon Coveney and Julian Smith played a key role in ending the political stalemate at Stormont
The nurses’ strike combined with the political nous of Simon Coveney and Julian Smith played a key role in ending the political stalemate at Stormont

There is widespread relief that our politicians have at last got back to work, having signed up to a comprehensive agreement on a wide range of outstanding issues that have bedevilled our politics for the past three years or more.

Congratulations are due, in particular, to Simon Coveney and Julian Smith for jointly navigating this radical breakthrough that has led to a full restoration of the Assembly and power-sharing Executive.

Simon Coveney has been an outstanding foreign minister for the Republic, not just in relation to Europe and Brexit, but especially in his role as the Irish government's negotiator here over the past number of years.

As foreign minister, he has had a hugely demanding brief, covering a multitude of issues. But his commitment to Northern Ireland and the process of sustaining and developing peace and reconciliation here is a passionate one.

He has always had an abiding personal interest in the north and its people. His goodwill and determination to make things work is simply extraordinary and is matched by his hard work as an indefatigable negotiator.

That said, he is no romantic dreamer, but a hard grafter with an eye for detail and a skill in deal-making. His contribution to getting this deal done has been indispensable.

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There is little doubt that the appointment of Julian Smith as the Conservative Secretary of State was a game-changer - even before the December 12 General Election, which saw the DUP dethroned as kingmakers at Westminster.

Unlike his hapless predecessor, Karen Bradley, who constantly seemed out of her depth, Julian Smith is a well-seasoned political bruiser and fixer, bringing with him the dark arts which he learnt as chief whip of a bitterly divided Conservative Party at Westminster.

As a chief whip, he was used to the tough and demanding pressures of trying to get business done for a beleaguered Government faced with an anarchic and insubordinate Parliament.

It was armed with these skills that he was able to face up to the rigours of politics here and work with an equally determined Coveney to persuade the DUP and Sinn Fein that their time was up and a deal was necessary to restore Stormont.

However, there is little doubt that the General Election result was the major decisive factor for both Sinn Fein and the DUP.

In that election, both parties lost out - big time. In comparison with 2017, Sinn Fein lost 57,000 votes and DUP lost 48,000.

Neither party was happy with an electorate that was clearly voting against them, largely because of the stalemate at Stormont and the visible decline in our public services, as illustrated by the nurses' strike action.

Obviously, the nurses, when they went on strike, had no overt political intent beyond attempting to achieve pay parity with Britain and to improve the failing standards within the health service here.

But their high-profile action brought them widespread public sympathy and unintentionally became an important pressure-point in the political debate about the deadlock at Stormont.

It was abundantly clear to an increasingly angry public that the issues raised by the nurses were issues that could have been solved if Stormont had been working.

The simple answer to a better deal for the nurses and an efficient health service was to bring back the Assembly. So, happily the Assembly is now back, but not due to any road to Damascus-type conversion by the DUP/Sinn Fein duopoly, but primarily due to the punishment beating meted out to them in the General Election.

In addition, they also succumbed to the irresistible array of promised financial support from the Treasury to fix practically every issue in the new Executive's in-tray.

Such temptations are hard to refuse and were gleefully pocketed by both major parties.

Both of these parties are also happy with the inclusion of the UUP and SDLP at the Executive table. They were frightened that they would remain outside the Executive and form an official Opposition, which would have undermined their respective positions.

After all, it was the SDLP/UUP Opposition of 2016 that was primarily responsible for the weakening of that DUP/Sinn Fein Executive, eventually leading to the collapse of the institutions over the RHI scandal.

They are even happier with Naomi Long's decision to take the Justice Minister's brief, thereby avoiding (Heaven forbid!) giving the position to either the UUP or SDLP.

But they were also fearful that Alliance would remain outside the tent, allowing it to become the Opposition and to further advance its electoral surge.

This could be a strategic error for Alliance, as it ties them closely into the new Executive and deprives them of wider opportunities to criticise the Executive and pursue their legitimate electoral ambitions.

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