Belfast Telegraph

Why this week is make or break time for the return of power-sharing

A deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein, however imperfect it might be, could still be better than having no agreement at all, says Ed Curran

Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill and the DUP’s Arlene Foster
Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill and the DUP’s Arlene Foster

Is this the week when Northern Ireland finally turns the corner towards some form of lasting political stability? When the DUP and Sinn Fein finally recognise enough is enough and whatever the deep distrust between the two parties, nothing is worth dismantling or even destroying what has been gained over the past two decades?

When Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill find their feet and come together to offer some collective reassurance to the people of Northern Ireland that the country can be governed properly - and fairly - in the interests of all sections of this society?

Is this the week?

As of today, there does appear to be real hope of a breakthrough in the year-long deadlock which has left the Stormont ship rudderless and public services in a budgetary mess.

Of course, the issues that caused the Stormont Executive to collapse are important. The heartbreaking legacy of the Troubles, the status of Irish language and culture, Foster's role in the RHI scandal, minority rights and so on.

However, there is a difference between issues being important, or so important as to bring down the entire edifice of government, as has happened at Stormont since Sinn Fein walked away from the Executive on January 16, 2017.

Not one of the disputed issues is simple to resolve, if resolve at all, and the very fact that it has taken until now for even a chink of light to flash in the negotiations shows the complexity.

In any normal political relationship, in any normal parliament, that complexity would have been better recognised by the parties concerned. They might have agreed to park the most difficult and seemingly irreconcilable matters and tried to find partial agreement on others. In the end, that may well be the most positive outcome of this week - a realisation that Solomon himself could not resolve some of the matters they are arguing about.

The whole truth about the Troubles will never be known. Issues such as abortion and same-sex rights invoke deeply-held moral and religious views which cut across the political divide, making them all the more difficult to address properly.

And then there is the Irish language, elevated to deal-breaking status. Perhaps at the outset it would have been more sensible for unionists to have agreed to a proper study of the uptake of Irish language and culture in Northern Ireland, the costs and options going forward, and for this to have been presented to Stormont so that everyone could see the ramifications for themselves.

Overriding all the issues is one word. Respect, or rather the lack of respect between the two main parties.

For whatever reason, the level of mutual respect between former First Ministers Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson with the late Martin McGuinness was lost when Mrs Foster took over the DUP leadership. Northern Ireland is paying a heavy price for the breakdown in that relationship and for the failure ever since of Foster and McGuinness's successor Mrs O'Neill to build any meaningful relationship at all in the public eye. If a deal is done this week, the DUP has to give some way on Irish language funding and development.

Most likely this will be coupled with further support for Ulster-Scots culture, even though the latter does not command the same enthusiasm within the unionist community as Gaelic culture does for nationalists.

Mrs Foster is expected to be reinstated as First Minister despite Sinn Fein's demand over the RHI scandal that she should stand aside while a public inquiry was taking place.

That inquiry is well underway. Given that she has yet to give evidence along with other DUP colleagues and advisers, and that the inquiry has many more months to run before reaching any conclusions, Foster looks likely to return to her Stormont office along with O'Neill.

However, Foster's long-term future must depend on the evidence presented to the RHI Inquiry and the judgment of Sir Patrick Coghlin and his team as to who was responsible for the maladministration of RHI.

Given the religious and moral fundamentalists in the DUP's grassroots, any resolution of same-sex marriage, gay rights and abortion issues seems beyond the capacity of the current party talks to resolve.

If Stormont is incapable of legislating on such matters, then Westminster is the only alternative.

As for the Troubles legacy, will the truth ever be told? With each passing year the prospects dim and the chances are remote of republicans and loyalists or the state's security services baring their souls and giving up the secrets of the past 40 years.

A year without power is a chastening experience. If it has taken that long for the DUP and Sinn Fein to move from the politics of dismissing out of hand the other's side point of view, so be it. Perhaps the fact that the parties have been contemplating their respective navels for so long has helped to bring them to the realisation that they were on a path of mutual self-destruction. No winners, only losers.

If that means the DUP and Sinn Fein agree to take cautious initial steps along a longer road to more progress and there is a willingness on all sides to go on the journey, then let them get on with it. Opposition to, or support for, the Irish language is no good reason to leave this country ungoverned for more than a year.

It has taken a long time for the penny to drop amongst the politicians and in the community at large, but now it appears to be doing so. Politics in Northern Ireland is not a case of feeding a hungry crocodile, but of finding a balanced diet by which all who live here and consider themselves British, Irish or whatever, can exist as normal human beings.

In the end, it is coming down to simple choices for Foster and O'Neill and their respective parties.

Do you want to share power or do you not? Do you want to ditch all that has been achieved and throw away the sacrifices that have been made over many decades? And, finally, have you come to accept that no matter how imperfect relationships at Stormont may be, a deal this week will be welcomed as infinitely better than no relationship at all?

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