Northern Ireland news

John Manley: Erskine House calamity won't derail the process but it does little to instil confidence in those overseeing it

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Chris Heaton-Harris arrive at Erskine House in Belfast. Picture by Hugh Russell

IT’S clear that the two governments hoped to begin 2023 by bringing fresh, co-ordinated momentum to the process aimed at restoring the Stormont institutions.

The British government planned to host roundtable talks in Belfast yesterday, while today both Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Micheál Martin will travel north for a series of meetings. Labour leader Keir Starmer will also be in Belfast overnight.

Yet the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, especially when overseen by the hapless Northern Ireland Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, a department that seemingly still harbours grandiose delusions from the empire era.

The exclusion of Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald from yesterday’s talks was unnecessary and ill-advised. It reeked of pettiness and a desire by the British government to dictate an agenda that ought to be inclusive rather than exclusionary.

Barring the Sinn Féin president on the basis that the party’s assembly leader was invited, while inviting MPs Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Colum Eastwood, leaders of the DUP and SDLP respectively, is inconsistent. Speculation that the objections to Mrs McDonald’s attendance may have arisen from Dublin were quickly discounted, meaning blame for the sorry mess lies solely with British government officials, who surely should have foreseen such an eventuality.

When Sir Jeffrey is fighting Sinn Féin’s corner, insofar as arguing that Mrs McDonald should not have been excluded, it’s clear that somebody senior made a grave error of judgement.

Yesterday’s calamity at Erskine House won’t derail the process or even set it back substantively, however, it does little to instil confidence in those overseeing it. Rather than doubling down, the British government needs to admit that it made a hames and endeavour to be more clued-in over the weeks ahead.

Ahead of the planned roundtable, levels of optimism and engagement were actually higher than they had been for some time. Monday’s announcement on data-sharing has quite rightly been heralded as a breakthrough but it is merely one element of a multifarious process.

While it’s hoped that an executive will be in place by April 10, the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, the goal should be a sustainable solution rather than a sticking plaster fix that fits the ceremonial optics. What’s required on all sides is sincerity, strategy, and – especially when it comes to the DUP – a heavy dose of realism.