Belfast Telegraph

When SF accuse others of waffle, you know you are in for the long haul

Belfast Agreement seems dead in the water, but replacement will have to be based on consent principle, says Eilis O'Hanlon.

So, days after the election, Sinn Fein walks out of it first meeting with Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire, accusing him of peddling "waffle". This from a negotiating team that included Gerry Adams, whose own diet of waffle comes as part of an entire breakfast buffet of evasion and gibberish.

The next short weeks of talks are going to feel very long if this is how they've begun and Sinn Fein and the DUP have not even met face-to-face yet. Or perhaps that should be "two faces to two faces", since neither party is exactly being upfront about what it's willing to concede in order to avoid the rapid re-imposition of direct rule.

It's as if Northern Ireland is a bad comic, plagued by terrible timing. Squabbles over matters that should have been open to a reasonable compromise kept the Assembly suspended between 2002 and 2007, just as the Celtic Tiger was booming in the south and we could have been taking advantage of the economic opportunities.

The Assembly finally got up and running in May 2007, only for a worldwide recession to hit in the second quarter of the following year. This ushered in the worst possible circumstances in which to bed in the Assembly, with coffers shrinking and investment vanishing when we could and should already have had five golden years and its attendant feelgood factor under our belts.

Ten years on, it's happening all over again.

Finally, last May, there was a glint of light. The sunlit uplands beckoned as Arlene and Martin serenaded the glorious shared future like Ulster politics' answer to Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton.

It really is worth going back to look at what they said at the time, with McGuinness urging everyone to take "a more responsible, a more mature approach" to the business of government.

Less than 10 months later - kaboom! It was all over again. Whatever rhythm Northern Ireland ticks by just doesn't seem to be the same one by which the rest of the world sets its watch.

That matters now more than ever, because there's only "ourselves alone", to borrow a phrase, to sort it out. Back in the 90s, Tony Blair and President Clinton were engaged intimately with Northern Ireland's future.

Now, Theresa May and Donald Trump have other things on their mind - Brexit, in her case, and Arnold Schwarzenegger's Apprentice ratings in his.

The Irish Government could actually muscle into that vacuum - that's what the Machiavellian political brokers would urge it to do - but, in truth, Ulster probably scares them witless (or, perhaps, even something that rhymes with witless) - and why wouldn't it?

So, it's up to Arlene Foster, Michelle O'Neill and James Brokenshire, looking for all the world like Harry Potter got the wrong letter and was sent to the School of Hard Knocks instead of Hogwarts. And there, lurking in the background on another jaunt up from his supposed day job down south, is Gerry, the ghost at the feast.

Scanning these ranks, it's tempting to recall the words of American ecologist Paul Shephard, who once said that the only thing scarier than a society run by children, as in Lord Of The Flies, is one run by "childish adults".

There's just an awful lot of tomfoolery around right now and we can't afford it as we move into what increasingly feels like a post-Belfast Agreement phase.

Even worse, a post-Belfast Agreement phase without ever having had the benefit of the best the Belfast Agreement had to actually offer.

There's that bad timing again. The spirit that allowed a settlement to be reached in 1997, however flawed, propelled the political process forward for the next 20 years. If it's running out of fuel, then it needs a huge generosity of vision to imagine a replacement, because we're clearly in some kind of "neither one thing nor another" stage of our history.

Traditional unionism has lost its political majority, even if it still has one demographically for now, but nationalism doesn't have anywhere near the numbers yet to change the constitutional status of the place.

Things could go either way from here on in and there doesn't seem to be anyone to turn to as a guide. Unionism is in too much disarray to provide a steady hand on the tiller and nationalism has no one to offer a vision in the way that John Hume did for so long.

Gerry Adams seems to think the role has been allotted to him, but his thinking hasn't progressed an inch since he saw his first republican slogan on a wall as a boy, still appearing to believe that one more push will do the trick, until he falls triumphantly across the magical line of "50%-plus one" and gets his beloved united Ireland.

There's no consideration for what sort of Northern Ireland will then be co-opted into this unification fantasy, or what a mess might have been made of it in the meantime.

What politicians here should do is spend another 30 or 40 years making the trains run on time and sorting out the health and social care crisis and helping small businesses create a real and sustainable economy, rather than one built on the kindness of strangers - but that's the one thing none of them will dream of doing.

There's no pedestal in history for politicians who just get on with the job and leave history to sort itself out.

Last week's election only made that worse, because the same questions still need to be resolved as before, but now there's a new dynamic that no one quite understands.

And perhaps no one will know for sure what to do next until we find out how Brexit looks down the line and where Northern Ireland sits afterwards in relation to the new United Kingdom and new Europe.

If the Belfast Agreement is dead, though, whatever replaces it will still need to be based on the same fundamental principle of consent.

Everyone seems to have forgotten the "C" word in their eagerness to jump on one another's political graves.

Arlene Foster demonstrated that she didn't care much, or think enough, about gaining the consent of nationalists, and Sinn Fein's too busy crowing about giving a bloody nose to the DUP to pay heed to winning the consent of ordinary unionists, who are understandably alarmed by a newly rampant republicanism.

The Belfast Agreement was about slowing down and making sure people were brought along before making any grandiose plans.

Remembering that before they rip it up and demand a replacement would help.

Belfast Telegraph

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