Talks on North’s deadlock open: Time to end indulgent dysfunction

Patrick Kavanagh once described the Irish countryside in May, when the whitethorn was in full, magnificent bloom, as wearing its Communion dress. It is unlikely he would use a phrase so heavy with suggested virtue to describes today’s countryside. It is almost drowning under a tsunami of election posters.

The candidates’ diversity is impressive even if vanity occasionally stands in the place of self-realisation. Kavanagh’s response would be curt but if he considered the alternative, and he would not have too far to look to see one, he might be less dismissive; maybe not quite celebratory but possibly relieved.

No matter how tempting it is to sneer at some of this Republic’s politicians it is reassuring that they at least talk to each other, that they try to make the system deliver on its promise and obligations — unlike their indulgent, indulged and tribal counterparts in Northern Ireland.

It is almost two-and-a-half years since Stormont ceased to function over what, in the context of this island’s sad, divided history are at best minor issues. It is as if the opposing sides realised that their well-established policies of creating a crisis to stir supporters from the slumber a functioning system might deliver were needed so one was contrived.

Lyra McKee’s murder was, at least partially, a consequence of that cynical tribalism. The unwelcome presence of those indifferent to the democratically expressed will of the majority and their makey-uppy army, is another. That the North’s majority who voted to remain in the EU have no voice representing their interests is another, possibly the most significant.

The latest efforts to break this impasse, inevitably under the supervision of visiting adults, began yesterday when talks, scheduled to take three weeks, began. Negotiations were preceded by the by-now-mandatory sweetener when it was announced that Derry is to receive €122.5m from the British taxpayer to encourage economic development and tackle long-term deprivation.

It may be a tad cynical to suggest that this is a counterbalance to the €1.2bn given to the DUP for their support by Theresa May’s government but it is impossible to ignore the symmetry.

The Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones’s description of the DUP deal as an “outrageous straight bung” deepens scepticism and encourages dysfunction. In the event of a united Ireland, no matter how remote that seems, indulging this addiction to state-sponsored hush money would be impossible.

The deadlock did not have any impact on last week’s local elections in the North where rivals-in-chief, the DUP and Sinn Féin maintained their dominance. This suggests the electorate was not sufficiently frustrated by Stormont’s mothballing to sanction them or, more probably, these hardline parties have sucked all of the oxygen out of the political process leaving no room for moderate alternatives.

The opening stages of this new process will focus on rebuilding trust. Challenging as that is it is increasingly difficult to believe both protagonists want Stormont to work as its success would condemn them to the sidelines. This political Gordian knot is one of Ireland’s great tragedies but it must be undone. Failure is not an option this instance.

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