“All-party peace talks now” was the Sinn Féin slogan 20 years ago – but no more. During the recent shambolic process not a single all-party meeting took place. Anyone would think, given it is still devoting time to voter registration, that Sinn Féin just wants a second election.
Because there were no all-party talks, it was hard to challenge Sinn Féin on exactly what a solution to their problem looks like. It is unclear whether Sinn Féin knows. Because Unionists decided to spend most of the time just talking to each other, they showed no real willingness to deliver a resolution either. Because the UK Government is a player around legacy issues and an Irish Language Act (the past Agreement commits the UK Government to introduce one), it was never going to be seen as an impartial Chair anyway.
If there is to be a resolution, it will take structured talks establishing what the parties’ motivations are, what principles can be signed up to, and then an implementation programme.
There will also need to be a recognition that there are three distinct (if linked) sets of talks to get through:
1. Implementation of Past Agreements (this needs an independent Chair because the UK Government is a player here) – an implemention plan on Legacy, NI Executive influence on Brexit, and reserved Irish Language issues (broadcasting).
2. Institutional Reform – this could be chaired by the UK Government which is not a “player” in this case but which may need to legislate, including agreement on how to promote “respect”, use of Petition of Concern and enforcement of Ministerial Code (this may require an Act).
3. Establishment of Executive – a purely devolved issue with perhaps a local Chair, including agreement on devolved Ministers, a Programme for Government, a Budget and a programme of Health Transformation (this latter requires all-party agreement).
The Assembly itself in effect now becomes the Forum for such talks.
To be frank, this must be done properly and thus it may take some time (maybe as long as the RHI inquiry), but it is clearly do-able unless someone chooses to be deliberately obstructive.
So let’s do it. (We’ll come to how to deliver government in the meantime tomorrow.)