John Manley: The political backdrop is bleak and the appetite for agreement meager

The time to save Stormont is running out. Picture by Mal McCann

The next few weeks will certainly test James Brokenshire's mettle. To date, there's been strong suspicion that the secretary of state isn't up to the unique demands of politics in the north, which in recent months has been especially challenging.

But there is still an opportunity for the Tory MP to redeem himself by somehow persuading the DUP and Sinn Féin back into the executive, thus avoiding direct rule Armageddon.

Yet anybody who's been watching this process over recent months wouldn't give him much chance of resolving the differences between the immoveable object that is Arlene Foster and the unstoppable force of Sinn Féin.

Increasingly, it is republicans who are being cast as unreasonable by laying down numerous 'red lines' and hastily rejecting the DUP's 'olive branch', which would have seen executive ministers appointed immediately while the Irish language and other cultural matters were negotiated within an agreed timeframe. However, as the SDLP argued, negotiations could be concluded quickly and the institutions restored if there was a willingness to compromise.

Sinn Féin northern leader Michelle O'Neill said the same thing yesterday as she called for a "short, sharp and focused" process rather than adopting a DUP approach that can be characterised as putting the cart before the horse.

It certainly doesn't auger well when the two main protagonists can't agree the context under which the the negotiations should proceed.

In his meetings with the parties yesterday, Mr Brokenshire stressed how things would come to head next month and while he is loathed to talk of deadlines, there is need to provide senior civil servants with some certainty around spending. There is a degree of flexibility in terms of when the so-called appropriation bill that would effectively usher in direct rule needs to be passed but it would appear matters can't be allowed to drift past Halloween.

Another election would buy some time but ultimately we would return to the same place with the same issues outstanding.

In Northern Ireland politics we are well accustomed to pessimistic scenarios giving way to eleventh hour breakthroughs but this time around the deadlock seems to become more rigid with every fresh round of negotiations and the recrimination deeper.

It appears efforts will be made to convene some form of 'hothouse' negotiations, possibly remote from Stormont and away from the glare of the media – an international may even be called-in to provide a fresh dynamic. But whatever the venue, the political backdrop remains bleak and the appetite for agreement meager.


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