Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland faces defining year in politics, but signs are less than promising

By Ed Curran

Will Brexit spell an open Irish border or not? Can Arlene Foster's reputation survive the RHI Inquiry? Will Sinn Fein and the DUP finally compromise after a year of deadlock? Will it be direct rule, in-between rule, or power-sharing again?

The questions are many; the answers few. But 2018 promises to be the defining year for all of them.

From Theresa May to Leo Varadkar, from the Brexit negotiators in Brussels to the leaders of the European Union, an open border is agreed all-round. It is as if the problem has gone away and London and Brussels hope upon hope that they can avoid the complexity of politics here.

Yet, despite all the optimism elsewhere, we who live in Northern Ireland know how difficult it can be to turn an aspiration into reality.

The talks on trade, which begin sometime later this year, will be the real determining factor. Until agreement is found no one can be certain about the only land frontier between the UK and Europe, or how it will affect the economy or politics of Northern Ireland.

We know now that the referendum on leaving the European Union has had a deeply divisive impact on political relations here. It has helped to split asunder the power-sharing Executive at Stormont, pushed more moderate-minded nationalists towards Sinn Fein and unsettled those unionists among the majority who voted to stay as part of the EU.

Worst of all, the Brexit divide, coupled with no Stormont Executive, has reopened the constitutional issue as to how Northern Ireland should be governed - even though the matter was settled in the Good Friday Agreement almost 20 years ago and has been much less of a political issue ever since.

If 2018 continues as 2017 left off, then the extent of the Irish Government's involvement in Northern Ireland could bedevil relations between unionists and nationalists unless an answer is found swiftly at Stormont.

Can a solution be found? Probably not before the Brexit border is truly defined. Possibly not before the RHI Inquiry hears from Foster and vindicates, or otherwise, her refusal to stand aside from the First Minister's office. Surely not unless Sinn Fein and the DUP find a way to compromise on the Irish language and rights issues.

Evidence to date at the RHI Inquiry in Stormont's Senate Chamber has drawn back the curtain on how civil servants, energy officials and advisers administered the scheme within the department run by her.

On more than one occasion, Sir Patrick Coghlin has had cause to raise his eyebrows at evidence of flawed decision-making, which could cost the public purse as much as £700m.

Now, the spotlight turns to the politicians, in particular DUP ministers and its team of Spads (special advisers) whose names are linked to the RHI scheme. The inquiry chairman promises to leave no stone unturned. That being the case, the RHI probe in 2018 should provide a rare, perhaps unique, insight into the inner workings of the DUP, a party not noted for baring its soul in public.

By early summer everyone should be so much wiser. Crucially, for the future of the Stormont Executive and relations between the DUP and Sinn Fein, the role of Foster in RHI should be clarified once and for all, in her favour or otherwise.

However, Northern Ireland cannot afford to wait that long for a resolution of the current impasse.

The DUP suggestion of another round of talks to start this month is mystifying, to say the least, given the failures of the past year, but any discussion is better than the continuing void.

As politics stands for Northern Ireland this New Year's Day, the prospect of a return to power-sharing at Stormont is remote. Too many issues - from the complexity of Brexit to the prolonged RHI Inquiry - conspire together to offer little confidence.

There is no visible, or logical, route-map ahead.

What the electorate voted for last June - a unionist party that is not noted for giving a lot, a nationalist party that demands too much - appears a recipe for deadlock into the foreseeable future.

Neither Foster nor Michelle O'Neill appear to have the stateswoman-like leadership qualities to climb out of the trenches, which were dug deep in 2017. And where are the independent arbiters who brokered so many difficult deals in the past? Seemingly insurmountable differences were resolved, but today the DUP and Sinn Fein are left to wander about in a wilderness of their own making.

At such a defining moment for Northern Ireland, two relatively young, untested figures in Foster and O'Neill are in situ.

That they might have the clout of a Paisley, Robinson, Hume, Trimble, Adams or McGuinness to sell an awkward compromise deal to their party faithful is doubtful, given their respective performances to date suggest little room to manoeuvre.

Neither seems capable of rising above the traditional Orange and Green divisions of their rural power bases in the border counties of Fermanagh and Tyrone.

Both might even confess to having no wish to do so. But, if one or other cannot or will not, where does that leave power-sharing?

The year 2017 proved a political waste of time, marked by month after month of fruitless, futile talks between the two main parties, with no sign of a breakthrough.

If that continues, Northern Ireland is back to the future.

It is in danger of returning to where it was in the early-1960s - two large power blocs, entrenched unionists and nationalists, one side demanding rights which the other is determined to resist.

The lessons of the past half-century must not be forgotten.

But the emptiness of Stormont this New Year suggests that is exactly what is happening.

Belfast Telegraph

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