In recent weeks British Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has issued
several statements positively ‘pumping up’ the Stormont talks. But just last week she introduced a sudden caution, suggesting ‘the chances of clinching a final deal look slim’.
At no time during the last seven weeks has either a credible process, or any political momentum been introduced to these talks. It neither been a talks or negotiation process. Inertia has been the hallmark throughout. That stems from the British and Irish governments’ detachment from the political process. The result has been negative mismanagement by the British and passivity from the Irish.
The absence of ‘process’ has been substituted by the circulation of papers by NIO officials presuming points of consensus upon issues which are entirely based upon their own assertion, rather than inter-party agreement. This piecemeal, tactical approach suggests the ground is being prepared for a predetermined British paper with Irish government sign-off. The British have taken the lead as a facilitator, not a participant. The Irish government has accepted a junior, not co-equal role.
All this sits in the frame of elections. Speculation has intensified about a hung parliament in Britain after the general election. The UKIP surge, and potential eclipse of Labour in Scotland by the SNP play into that. In the 26 counties the current coalition is in serious trouble, and now deals with everything from water charges, child abuse, budgets, to the north, through the filter of electoral politics.
A comprehensive deal to resolve all outstanding and new issues relating to the peace and political processes will not be encouraged if that has the potential to further enhance Sinn Féin’s electoral rise and continued political realignment in the south. The elements in the mix of proposals, as Villiers and Charlie Flanagan make their progress reports, are increased austerity and reduced government in the north; avoidance of the all-Ireland agenda; dilution of Haass; and capitulation to the DUP/extremist unionist/Orange demand for an inquiry on Ardoyne.
A pre-Christmas report might be produced on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis, and, or the talks stagger into the new-year so that disagreement, and potential collapse of the institutions allows for Assembly and Westminster elections on the same day. Villiers’ statement may be conditioning opinion in advance.
This much is clear; the potential for success in the Stormont talks is now competing with the political and electoral interdependency between the British Conservatives and DUP: and a failure, thus far, to fully assert the primacy of the Good Friday Agreement by, and electoral self-interest of, Irish Government parties.
The onus is on Pro-Agreement and democratic opinion across Ireland and internationally to exert maximum pressure and ensure a comprehensive, successful talks’ outcome.