Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: So tantalisingly close but it looks like Stormont talks will continue into the New Year

Julian Smith at Stormont after talks finished on Thursday night
Julian Smith at Stormont after talks finished on Thursday night
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

So, it looks as if that staple phrase of the rolling news channels, the "ongoing Stormont talks process", will be our first visitor of the New Year.

The draft deal framed by the British and Irish governments is only a paragraph or two away from success - but those paragraphs contain vexed issues.

Given the extent of consensus between the political parties and context of the dire health crisis, the failure to reach agreement might be seen as extraordinary.

Read the parties' offerings at last week's election and you might wonder how the Assembly has lain dormant for three years.

"We welcome the significantly reduced use of the Petition of Concern and support a move to weighted majority voting," trumpeted the DUP.

"The SDLP support substantial reform of the Petition of Concern," declared Colum Eastwood's party. Reform the Petition of Concern "veto mechanism" insisted Sinn Fein.

The UUP urged one last chance for Stormont reforms, otherwise it was time for the UK Government to take charge.

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Alliance preferred a la carte direct rule to get the Stormont show back: Westminster legislation to downgrade or eliminate Petitions of Concern and, crucially, introduce an Irish Language Act.

Westminster intervention to introduce an Irish Language Act (ILA) would cap a bad 12 months for the DUP.

Brutally cast aside by the Prime Minister on Brexit, defeated on same-sex marriage and abortion, reduced in size and stature in the Commons, the DUP's billion pounds reward for Northern Ireland - now largely spent - will not provide sufficient balm for the wounds.

UK Government legislation on an ILA would get the DUP off the hook in that the internal party struggles over such a bill would be reduced to irrelevance.

The DUP voter base is much more aligned to the DUP position on an ILA than it was on marriage or abortion issues, so the party could then explain another reverse on helplessness in the face of Westminster legislation but it would still be the fourth policy defeat in a short space of time. The DUP now needs a few wins.

Arguments over reform of the Petition of Concern (PoC) are odd, given the apparent cross-party agreement and the probability that they would be far rarer anyway in a reconstituted Assembly, even under the old rules.

Even with those terms, the legislative productivity of the Assembly - when sitting - matched that of the Scottish and Welsh legislatures.

With its Assembly representation below 30, the DUP cannot fly solo and anyone thinking that Steve Aiken has become leader of the UUP to jump into the PoC bed with his unionist rivals does not understand Aiken nor the form of unionism he wishes to create.

Mutual vetoes form part of every Good Friday Agreement type of deal around the globe.

They are ingredients for stagnation or collapse - see Bosnia and Lebanon, not just Northern Ireland - but very difficult to remove. If vetoes are eliminated, the logic is to remove entirely the communal designations and autonomy.

Without those communal affiliations, there is no need for the mandatory power-sharing and proportionality in government rules of the Good Friday Agreement - as the 'unionist-nationalist-other' original foundations of the Assembly would have disappeared.

Radical - but is Northern Ireland ready yet?

Meanwhile, the expectation remains that Stormont revives.

Secretary of State Julian Smith will presumably at least avoid the mistake of US diplomat Richard Haass, the hardest Christmas worker since Bob Cratchit.

In 2013 Haass kept trying to finalise a cross-party deal between Christmas and New Year.

Faced with singing Auld Lang Syne on his own in a Belfast hotel, even he wisely headed home on New Year's Eve. He never returned.

Still, on the basis that Stormont is only a paragraph (or two) away, a Merry Christmas to all. And a Happy 2020 Talks Process.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool

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