Earlier this month, there was no reason not to take Michelle O’Neill at her word when she said Sinn Féin wanted to be in government “in the North to deliver societal change” and no reason not to note the coordination of Arlene Foster’s response that efforts should be made to see if there was scope for agreement.
Let us emphasise again that, technically and fundamentally, the operation of the Executive requires the agreement of the two parties they lead, so it was fair enough for the two parties alone to scope out how they could improve relationships and build trust.
Nevertheless, the evidence is that, while there was progress, it was very limited. We should also note that the establishment of a rocky DUP-SF Executive with the propensity to fall apart at any moment because there is not sufficient trust within it is, in fact, in no one’s interests. That being the case, how do we get an Executive?
I think even those of us like me who support the principle of an opposition are beginning to recognise that an Executive of any coherence will need to have more than those two parties in it. All the evidence suggests it will require at least two and possibly three other parties for it to function in any kind of coherent and representative way.
By entitlement, an Executive would be 3 DUP, 2 SF, 1 SDLP and 1 UU plus Justice. The obvious route to a five-party Executive is to offer Justice to Alliance. Another option for a four-party Executive, however, would be to offer Justice to a party already entitled to a Ministry, most obviously the SDLP, which would then see the final Ministry allocated to SF (a third).
If we have established from the evidence that an all-party Executive is required, it is probably time for all-party talks to scope out the potential for putting one together. Counterintuitively, such talks may prove easier than just two-party talks, as having other parties around the table increases the scope for risk-taking (to reach a deal into which all parties are bought and, thus, from which no “opposition” party can realistically hope to gain).
There is also a case for widening the talks still further to involve civic society. Yes, politicians are the ones we elect, but they are also inclined towards living in a ‘bubble’, focused on political rather than societal outcomes. Politicians need to be confronted directly with the very real difficulties lack of agreement would cause, as well as the opportunities which agreement would help us all take.
The timescale for such talks, with Conferences and Brexit Bills ahead, is frustratingly medium rather than short term. However, all the evidence suggests they are necessary, and there is no harm in trying them at least to scope out what the issues really are.