Belfast Telegraph

We should dare to imagine a life beyond the Good Friday Agreement ... a period of direct rule would allow us to do just that

Power-sharing looks dead in the water, joint authority is a non-starter. There are worse things than rule from Westminster, argues Eilis O'Hanlon

Westminster could soon be calling the shots again
Westminster could soon be calling the shots again
Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern sign the Good Friday Agreement

It's ironic that Sinn Fein brought down Stormont last year on the pretext that there could be "no return to the status quo" and may now have made inevitable the return of the most enduring status quo of them all - direct rule.

But is that any worse than the one which currently prevails? That's the status quo of endless talks, arguably a much more invidious state of affairs.

Far from being a means to an end, talks between the DUP and Sinn Fein, presided over by the two governments, have become an end in themselves, allowing a permanent elongation of political adolescence and postponement of executive adulthood.

The current round of blame-laying is another part of the same game. Sinn Fein has clearly miscalculated how much it could demand.

Unionist frustration at the creeping demands of republicanism was bound to come to a head eventually. It just so happens to have been the insistence on a stand-alone Irish Language Act, which brought the crisis kettle to the boil at this point; but if it hadn't been that, it would have been something else down the line.

Sinn Fein needs to rethink its approach, because brinkmanship has exhausted its usefulness as a tool.

The DUP, likewise, needs to reflect on which issues it's prepared to make a final stand. The Irish language has been deployed as a weapon to dilute Northern Ireland's Britishness, but it's important to separate that aspect from the language itself and it's not altogether clear the DUP understand that distinction.

Nationalists are a bit silly about Irish. They have a nostalgic attachment to it without a corresponding resolution to do much to keep it alive beyond putting up a few street signs and chucking some money at the gaelscoils.

It's a form of collective self-deception, but essentially harmless for all that, and the DUP has yet to figure out a way to show magnanimity towards those small cultural signifiers, while simultaneously protecting unionists' own identity.

That makes them look petulant, scared and small-minded when the Union would be best defended by being confident, flexible, generous.

No sane person is insisting on signs "as Gaelige" up the Shankill Road, or compulsory language classes in schools, or the "right" to do all one's official business in a language spoken only by a tiny minority (and often not well even by them). Seeking compromise around what is reasonable to expect would be more fruitful.

Neither of the main parties is at a stage, though, where they're ready to change, so what's the point of continually bringing them back around the table to cobble together yet another half-hearted agreement?

These trade-offs never last for long, necessitating another round of jibber-jabber, and the more accords with fancy new names that come along, it simply encourages the participants to believe that something better might be achievable in the next one.

All hopes were pinned this week on a Shrove Tuesday, or Ash Wednesday, Agreement to echo the Belfast Agreement of old, but it's this thinking - the belief that one more push will sort everything out for good - which destabilises the process.

Boris Johnson gave a speech earlier this week in which he urged Remainers opposed to Britain's exit from the EU to stop (re)moaning and embrace Brexit.

It was widely scorned, because the Foreign Secretary's credentials as a builder of consensus remain dubious at best and laughable at worst. His essential point still stands, though. If Brexit is going to happen, then get on with it, make it a success.

The same goes for Northern Ireland. There are obstacles to the re-imposition of direct rule, some legislative, some political. The Dublin government appears to be prepared to make a stand on its right to a greater say in affairs north of the border, albeit without taking on any of the enormous financial commitments that come with it.

This is a new form of madness, which may have prompted Sinn Fein to dig in its heels in the expectation that joint authority will follow. It won't. It can't. It's much more of a red line than a stand-alone Irish Language Act.

Dublin will be making a foolish mistake if it tries to thwart the return of direct rule.

The wiser course right now would be to make a virtue of necessity.

If devolved government is impossible for the foreseeable future, direct rule will provide much-needed stability and continuity for a while, as well as giving time for a rethink of what we actually expect from Stormont, and even to dare imagine life beyond the Belfast Agreement.

Everything that has repeatedly tangled up the process has its roots in that document. Specifically, the weighting of normal democratic protocols to ensure that both communities are represented in an Executive.

The problem is both communities are not represented in any meaningful sense. Only the two largest parties are. And that's not the same thing at all.

In the circumstances, it's remarkable that so many people continue to vote for centre-ground alternatives when the system punishes them for doing so.

With the rewards for polarisation so high, it soon came to seem as if this was the way things had to be, but it wasn't so long ago that the First and Deputy First Ministers were David Trimble and Seamus Mallon.

That time feels almost as remote now as the darkest days of the Troubles. It was another world. Not a perfect one, by any means, but one that had possibilities.

The rationale behind the Belfast Agreement was that anything was justified if it brought peace. There was nothing wrong with that thinking. Violence had to be brought to an end somehow.

But that doesn't mean the arrangements entered into during the months leading up to Easter 1998 must be set in stone, immutable, unchallengeable.

The onus is on those who claim to believe in the Belfast Agreement to make it work, and if they can't - or, as this latest collapse of talks suggest, won't even try - then there's no dishonour in others refusing to do their dirty work for them, especially when doing so increasingly solidifies Northern Ireland into two opposing blocs, perpetually facing off like stags at a deer rut.

There's a cliche which says that the world is run by those who turn up.

In Northern Ireland, we've flipped that on its head by letting the people who won't turn up and do what's expected of them to call the shots.

No one should be entitled to an automatic place in government.

The Belfast Agreement's greatest weakness was telling malcontents and wreckers that they had a right to power in perpetuity.

Belfast Telegraph


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