Even by the standards of Stormont, the collapse of the latest round of devolution talks in Northern Ireland has been a shambles – and Theresa May has been caught in the shrapnel.
Over the past couple of days, several figures in the Democratic Unionist Party – normally on excellent terms with the Prime Minister – have been critical of her visit to the Province earlier this week, suggesting that it was a distraction from the negotiations.
It’s certainly embarrassing for Downing Street that it should abandon their long-standing and sensible ‘hands off’ approach – wherein the squabbling Stormont parties were the responsibility of the Secretary of State – at just the moment that everything went so wrong.
There is still time for a deal to be done. The DUP have used walk-outs to effect in the very recent past, as when they pulled the rug out from under May’s deal on Phase One of Brexit.
But ministers now face the increasing prospect of having to implement direct rule and govern Ulster directly – an outcome made all the more likely because Arlene Foster, the DUP leader and former First Minister, has for the first time joined these calls herself, despite the obvious disadvantage such a shift in power would hold for a politician without a Westminster seat.
What happened? Shifting the blame to May and Leo Varadkar, her Irish counterpart, for turning up seems tenuous, not least because they almost certainly wouldn’t have been there if they hadn’t been told a deal was in the offing. Instead, what appears to have happened is that the DUP leadership has failed to carry unionism on the concessions they needed to restore the Executive.
According to Eamonn Mallie’s account, both sides were ready to deal. The DUP never wanted Stormont to collapse in the first place, and Sinn Fein have clearly decided that they haven’t won the dividends they hoped for when they brought down the Executive and sought to capitalise on Brexit. Indeed, apparently “the governments marvelled at the intensity and genuineness of the commitment of the respective party negotiating representatives.”
But the deal foundered on the prospect of a free-standing Irish Language Act (ILA), which Sinn Fein has conjured as its new red line for rejoining the Executive (the original energy scandal which excused their walkout being long forgotten). Unusually enough the Guardian sum it up quite aptly: “The darker truth here is that Sinn Féin has chosen to weaponise the language question for political ends, less to protect a minority than to antagonise unionists.”
It worked. The DUP attempted to fudge it by proposing two companion acts, one protecting ‘Ulster Scots’ and the other Northern Ireland’s British heritage, but in truth they had done nothing to sell the wider unionist community on an ILA. No voices, moderate or otherwise, were raised in its favour within unionism and the backlash was fearsome.
Both sides share the blame here. If Sinn Fein really wanted sensible provisions for the Irish language they could have pursued the issue in a less provocative manner. If the DUP leadership really were prepared to concede on an ILA, even as part of a trinity, they ought to have rolled the pitch for it with the wider unionist community.
Perhaps they can still find a way to fudge it, but there doesn’t seem to be any swift route to winning unionist voters round to concessions on Sinn Fein’s latest red line. Hence Foster’s latter-day conversion to the wisdom of direct rule.
Worse, the imminent need for a Northern Irish budget sets a hard deadline on how long the Government can stall before it has to intervene from Westminster, where it may soon need to find space for lots of Ulster legislation in a legislative agenda already packed out by Brexit.