Belfast Telegraph

Colum Eastwood: We cannot allow political clocks to go back further

By Colum Eastwood

The clocks turned back in more ways than one this weekend. For northern politics today marks another missed deadline and another talks failure. The most depressing commentary on that failure is the knowledge that no one is in the least bit surprised.

It's a failure that has been long dragged out. After 10 months without a government, after two elections and after week upon week of talking, Sinn Fein and the DUP have now brought us to the brink of British direct rule.

And let's be clear, a budget delivered by James Brokenshire in Westminster is direct rule - it can't be painted or presented in any other way.

As I previously stated, the very least that must now be expected from the DUP and Sinn Fein is for them to publish their papers, publish what progress was made and then let the public judge who acted as the main block to the restoration of devolution.

As the talks ignore another deadline, no one should fool themselves into thinking that there is any solace to be found in direct rule.

I am deeply concerned that due to the very natural frustration with the Stormont talks, we are constantly being told that people simply don't care whether our politics works or not. Those who continue to feed that narrative are so seasoned in cynicism that their analysis has become stale.

We do not live at a time of political apathy; in fact people are more engaged than ever. They do care.

The deep disruptions of Brexit, and a political crisis which has finally caught up with the financial crisis of a decade ago, mean that we're now in a moment when everyone is intensely focused on a much wider horizon. Both of these islands are at the centre of that evolving change.

Due to the day-to-day intensity of modern politics, an old criticism is that it constantly carries the danger of failing to see the wood for the trees. In the current context the danger for northern politics in fact lies in the reverse.

As focus is naturally drawn to the broader political wood of Brexit and its deep instability the trees in front of us, the very trees we all planted 19 Good Fridays ago are being ripped up before our very eyes.

At the very moment the broader Anglo-Irish relationship faces into the seismic consequences of Brexit, the delicate equilibrium constructed between the two traditions in Northern Ireland is being sacrificed by a mixture of bad faith and bad negotiating.

For nationalism in particular, that requires us to seriously reflect. We are now facing into direct rule with a difference - the difference being that because of the numbers at Westminster, Arlene Foster and the DUP are being gifted a blank cheque over all of our futures. A Tory/DUP government is a combination which will do nothing to respect the Irish identity or protect our collective rights.

Nationalism across this island deserves a better strategy than the one which has left us with no Assembly, no North-South institutions, no voice in the context of Brexit and is now threatening to place us at the prolonged mercy of a coalition between the DUP and the Tories at Westminster.

It deserves a better strategy than the one which left no legacy of substantial economy or social success after 10 years at the top of government. For all the vague talk of Gerry Adams' broader political agenda, no one should be blind as to where that strategy has now brought us. Sinn Fein's negotiating has delivered British direct rule.

Surrendering power to a Tory/DUP government is a compromise the SDLP would never have made.

Therefore if no deal is to be reached, it is critical that the Irish Government sticks by the position of Minister Simon Coveney in ensuring that there can be no 'British only direct rule'.

In the absence of an Executive and Assembly, giving representation to the North's two traditions falls on both the Irish and British Governments. That is the logic and the balance underpinning all of our political agreements.

Maintaining that balance means that the alternative to direct rule is the joint stewardship of the North by the two governments.

We can't allow the clocks to go back any further.

Colum Eastwood is leader of the SDLP

Belfast Telegraph

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