Belfast Telegraph

Spectacular Stormont talks breakdown does not bode well for the future

By Suzanne Breen

In the surreal world of Northern Ireland politics it was apt that everything fell apart on St Valentine's Day.

The DUP-Sinn Fein relationship was never a love job, but they had been developing more positive feelings for each other in recent times and a new working partnership was on the agenda.

Arlene Foster was the one who called it off yesterday, but, had she not got in first, Sinn Fein would have struck.

Republicans had indicated they weren't willing to continue talks beyond this week and it was clear from discussions between the two parties yesterday that a deal by Friday was impossible.

It had looked very different late last week. So where did it all go wrong? The visit by the Prime Minister and Taoiseach on Monday didn't help.

If the aim was to encourage progress, it had the opposite effect. The DUP felt it was being bounced into a deal.

But cracks in the relationship started before Theresa May flew in.

Senior DUP figures, and most importantly the rank-and-file, were unnerved by the Sinn Fein special ard fheis on Saturday that saw shouts of "Up the rebels!" and "Tiocfaidh ar la!" from successive republican politicians including Mary Lou McDonald.

While the new Sinn Fein president was purely playing to the gallery and attempting to enhance her own republican credentials, the timing made the DUP jittery.

It is understood that a broad agreement had been reached between the two parties by Friday.

It included an Irish Language Act (ILA), but was clothed in the three-stranded approach as opposed to standalone legislation.

But at the special ard fheis, and again in Stormont on Monday, Sinn Fein referred to a standalone ILA.

A talks source said: "Major progress had been made by Friday but there was still stuff to be tied down and preparatory work to do but that wasn't possible on Monday, which became a circus with the arrival of Theresa May and Leo Varadkar."

At two internal DUP meetings on Monday morning it became clear that the panic and opposition among unionist grassroots was so extensive that DUP negotiators couldn't sell any form of ILA to the broader party.

"There was no challenge to Arlene's leadership nor anything nasty said but people made their feelings clear," a source said. Mrs Foster knows unionist leaders are historically toppled for compromising, not for being too hardline.

The only positive for devolution to emerge from the entire fiasco is that we now know Sinn Fein does want back into Stormont. It hasn't calculated that with Tory austerity and Brexit, it's better if it stays outside.

The chemistry between the two former government partners had genuinely improved. Yet given the public nature of yesterday's spectacular breakdown, it's impossible to see a remarriage on the cards any time soon.

Belfast Telegraph

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