Northern Ireland

John Manley: Time to end the charade and get on with Plan B

Political party's at Hillsborough Castle for talks with Chris Heaton-Harris
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson with his party colleagues Gavin Robinson and Emma Little-Pengelly at Hillsborough Castle earlier this week. PICTURE: COLM LENAGHAN (Colm Lenaghan)

There’s a list doing the rounds on WhatsApp highlighting the occasions since last February when Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has claimed to have made progress in his discussions with the British government. At various times there’s been “some progress”, “real progress” and “significant progress”, the latter cited both in mid-December and earlier this week. It’s by no means an exhaustive list but it nonetheless illustrates starkly the sense that we have been treading water for the past 11 months.

The DUP leader insists he’s a supporter of power-sharing and that his party has no issue serving alongside a nationalist first minister, yet Sir Jeffrey’s consistent deflection and prevarication only serve to fuel scepticism and lend support to the claim that the reluctance to restore Stormont is motivated at the very least by sour grapes, and potentially something more basic.

Chris Heaton-Harris  speaks to the media after  holding  talks with Stormont parties amid efforts to restore devolved government
The five biggest parties are meeting the secretary of state separately
It follows talks in December in which the UK government offered a £3.3bn financial package.
Picture Colm Lenaghan.
Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris. PICTURE: COLM LENAGHAN (Colm Lenaghan)

It’s now clear that Sir Jeffrey’s so-called negotiations between the British government ran out of road weeks ago, and that any delay around the return of devolution is an internal matter for the DUP. However, Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris is seemingly content to indulge the DUP and, despite indicating the contrary before Christmas, continue with the pretence that this process still has legs.

At the same time, the secretary of state dismisses calls to release the funds that will resolve the public sector pay disputes, wriggling off that particular hook by telling us it’s a devolved matter. Consensus is rare in Northern Ireland politics but pretty much everyone is agreed that we’re in a complete mess.

Thursday’s widespread strike action, while not quite the Armageddon it’s being portrayed by some, is a consequence of having no Stormont administration. There’s every likelihood of more strikes in the weeks ahead and no doubt at some point the DUP leader will insist there’s been “significant progress” in his engagement with the British government.

But the public is exhausted, tired of being told they’re on the verge of a breakthrough only to be let down time and time again.

Few believe that Wednesday’s assembly recall will result in a restoration of the institutions. Previous efforts to get the ball rolling by electing an assembly speaker have failed due to the DUP’s veto, but it’s one of the few measures left in the other parties’ armoury. It’s reminding people that while Chris Heaton-Harris is cast as this week’s villain, the source of Stormont’s dormancy is much closer to home.

Midnight on Thursday sees the expiry of the emergency legislation that deferred calling a fresh assembly election for almost a year. There’s an expectation that it’ll be replaced by something similar and that the political drift will be permitted to continue, potentially until there’s a change of administration in Downing Street. This is an unacceptable situation that not only leads to grater deterioration of our public services but also undermines people’s confidence in politics.

If Sir Jeffrey continues to dither and seek yet more time-wasting clarification around post-Brexit trade then it’s time for the rest of us to move on. It’s time to end the misguided tactic of punishing the whole of society for the DUP’s failure to recognise reality and for the secretary of state to instead examine more targeted ways of ensuring the institutions return. As well publishing the details of what has been agreed to date with the DUP, we also need to hear more about Plan B and how the Irish government can play a role representing a considerable section of the population that is being denied a voice.