Belfast Telegraph

Restoration of power-sharing in Northern Ireland has just taken big step forward

The Twelfth was lauded as the most peaceful in a generation. Could the spirit of inter-communal harmony eventually inspire agreement at Stormont in the autumn, asks Henry McDonald

Following what he described as "the most peaceful Twelfth for some years", Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd suggested that this year's Orangefest in Belfast could be a "model for years to come".

The senior PSNI commander would probably baulk from straying into party politics, but it is fair to suggest that the template for inter-communal agreement on display on Orangeism's most sacred day could extend further into the political world.

Because it would seem logical that, if nationalist residents' groups heavily influenced by Sinn Fein, and loyal orders increasingly dominated by the DUP, can reach compromise even over the most contentious parade routes in Northern Ireland, then the two big parties may still find a solution of their own to unlock the deadlock at the Stormont Assembly.

There was, of course, the usual, predictable blood-and-thunder ire directed at Sinn Fein from some of the platforms around the various fields at Twelfth demonstrations.

Harold Henning, the deputy grand master of the Orange Order, speaking at the main demonstration in Co Down, accused republicans of turning off the unionist population from Irish because they had politicised it.

Gerry Adams' party, of course, wants an Act that will only deal with the rights of Irish language speakers in the region.

It would effectively make Irish equal to English in law and possibly require compulsory translations in Government department documents, the health service and legal services.

The Orange Order's stated opposition at the climax of the Ulster marching season certainly underlined the problems the DUP will face if it agrees to Sinn Fein's demands for such an Act.

On one level, it illustrated the grassroots unionist opposition the DUP could encounter over the Act when negotiations to restore power-sharing restart in the autumn.

Mr Henning told Orangemen: "Republicans have driven more people away from ever cultivating a genuine interest in Irish language than they will ever attract to it through their current radical proposals.

"The current demand for an Irish Language Act is simply the next chapter in the republican campaign to rid Northern Ireland of any semblance of British cultural identity."

But note the first sentence here and the line about "cultivating a genuine interest in the Irish language".

It seems to suggest a softer approach to the Irish language and hints that unionists - even Orangemen - would be interested in Gaelic if only the whole issue was decommissioned as a political weapon.

This is not to suggest in any way, though, that Mr Henning was preparing the ground for a more general effusive approach from the unionist community towards Irish as a means to aid the DUP to cede some ground in the talks.

Yet what it does indicate is that the DUP might have some wriggle room for compromise when the negotiations restart once the politicians come back from their holidays.

On Belfast's Crumlin Road, meanwhile, Gerry Kelly looked like a relieved man compared to last year when knots of republican dissidents were baying for his blood over the 2016 compromise deal that one Ardoyne residents' group had worked out with the loyal orders.

This year there was hardly a dissident to be seen and Kelly - emboldened by two successive strong party electoral performances in March and then June - was confident to describe the Twelfth as a "good day", which augured well for the future.

Kelly stressed that the Ardoyne/Crumlin Road model could also be a template to improve community relations, stressing that it was more important for people to come together than politicians.

However, he will know as much as anyone that, where the people go, eventually the politicians must follow.

The "people" - in Kelly's case, the nationalist electorate and general northern Catholic population - were war-weary and turned off by the IRA's violence as the last decade of the 20th century approached.

The Sinn Fein leadership finally responded, the ceasefires were put in place, the compromises of Good Friday 1998 were reached, and the party was richly awarded at the ballot box.

The "people" on either side of the line, it is fair to say, by a large majority, are probably hugely grateful that this was the most peaceful, trouble-free Twelfth maybe for decades.

If the mood out there in terms of the parading issue is for compromise and agreement, then the argument goes that the same will be true for the politics of Stormont.

Of course, there are trip-wires all over the political landscape that could set off explosive rows between the two main parties over the summer.

One constitutional expert on the Good Friday Agreement, ex-UUP leader David Trimble's former legal adviser Dr Austen Morgan, warned in The Guardian that a stand-alone Irish Language Act could be subjected to a serious court challenge.

Ironically, Morgan contended any legal case against the Act would be on the basis that it breaches equality clauses contained within the Belfast Agreement.

Some in the DUP, especially those 'baby barristers' who used to be such thorns in Trimble's side, would be aware of such a possibility and worry if some hardliner might pick up that challenge in the event of a DUP concession on an Irish Language Act.

There are, however, other considerations that must loom large in the minds of political leaders over the summer as they think about the fresh round of talks ahead - such as who is going to control the doling-out of the £1bn-plus aid package that the DUP secured from the Tories to keep Theresa May resident in Downing Street?

Would they not want some of this extra expenditure directed into devolved departments that they could control - if and when the Executive was re-established?

Even while the last round of talks was breaking up in apparent acrimony, there were signals coming out of Sinn Fein that the party was prepared to be more flexible in order to re-establish Stormont.

At a united Ireland conference in Belfast recently, Adams had a new line that was later parroted by other party representatives.

The road to Irish unity would go through Stormont, he told the faithful, because Sinn Fein could demonstrate through good governance to unionists that they would be better off decoupled from Westminster.

Some in the local commentariat have claimed that Sinn Fein's grassroots 'pitchforked' the party leadership into taking a harder line with the DUP, forcing it to eject from the Executive and adopt an increasingly muscular approach to unionism.

This is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the republican movement - especially the fact that the party is directed on a top-down basis.

Just think, too, about those debates in the early years of the century over policing and that Sinn Fein conference at the Europa Hotel.

There it was mooted that the party should embrace a reformed police force and justice system as the price for entering power-sharing government with unionists.

"No way, Jose," one female delegated shouted from the floor, drawing some applause from those around her.

Yet, look what happened just a few years after that defiant cry from one of the grassroots - Sinn Fein signed up to back the PSNI and the legal system within the very state that the IRA had sought to destroy.

We are currently hearing some similar defiant misgivings about dealing with the DUP.

But you can forgive yourself for being cynical about all of that.

The Sinn Fein leadership - the most important of all the forces within mainstream republicanism - will lead the way in the new talks and won't be 'pitchforked' into anything except a deal with the DUP that puts its ministers' hands on the levers of local power once again.

As Vera Lynn once sang in comforting lyrics about blue birds over the White Cliffs of Dover: "Just you wait and see."

Henry McDonald's debut novel, The Swinging Detective, has just been published by Gibson Square

Belfast Telegraph


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