Leading article

Easy to understand Theresa May's strained smile

British prime minister Theresa May must have found it difficult to maintain her standard strained smile as she separately met with the leaders of Sinn Féin and the DUP at Downing Street yesterday.

Mrs May was offered sharply conflicting versions of the circumstances surrounding the collapse of the Stormont talks exactly a week previously, with both parties blaming each other for what amounted to a political shambles.

However, she was also well aware of the overwhelming evidence that most of the major issues separating the two sides had been resolved in the course of prolonged negotiations and a final agreement was ready to be signed.

Mrs May and taoiseach Leo Varadkar were given a detailed briefing on the breakthrough, and encouraged to believe that a joint visit to Belfast nine days ago would seal the deal, only to find a last minute spanner thrown into the works.

Thanks to the draft document released through the journalist Eamonn Mallie's website on Tuesday evening, the rest of us can see the obvious reasons for the initial confidence on behalf of the two prime ministers.

After more than a year of bitter public exchanges, the two main Assembly groups had privately reached a reasonable compromise over the central question of Irish language legislation and were on the verge of getting it endorsed by the British and Irish governments.

As had been regularly predicted, a related Ulster Scots measure was also part of the plan, with a wider culture and diversity act to follow in due course.

The DUP had plainly dropped its insistence on entirely blocking an Irish language act, with Sinn Féin scaling down the terms and conditions associated with the initiative.

Other matters linked to human rights were put back for further consideration and Sinn Féin quietly abandoned its long-standing demand that Arlene Foster could not return as first minister until the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal was resolved.

Unfortunately, it quickly became clear that the DUP had neglected to prepare its support base for all the necessary developments and the whole process has since descended into mutual recriminations.

It is all well capable of being revived further down the line, even allowing for the verbal gymnastics of the DUP in London yesterday and the party's disappointing failure to resume its engagement with Sinn Féin.

If and when all the key figures get back around the table, and endorse a blueprint which could be remarkably similar to the one dismissed last week, the resulting photo opportunity might even see Mrs May risk a grin.

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