By Brian Feeney
The responsibility for yesterday’s debacle at Stormont lies scattered around the feet of our clueless proconsul. The slightest glance at the paper presented to the parties at 11pm on Thursday night - ‘Paper for the Parties, a draft Agreement at Stormont’ - shows conclusively that she was daft to encourage the Taoiseach and David Cameron to come to Belfast.
The nine weeks of fruitless talks, negotiations is the wrong word, demonstrated all her inexperience and lack of political nous. Every week she seemed to allow another item to be added to the ‘agenda’, yet most of these items were of little consequence. Why did she not keep the parties concentrated on flags, Orange marches and the past? What had votes for 16-year-olds got to do with the north’s pressing problems?
Weeks ago Naomi Long described the talks as “shambolic”. Yesterday Gerry Adams described the shambles as the “most amateurish, ham-fisted episode I have ever been involved in”.
It became clear at an early stage that the only issue the British government was interested in was extending their dismantling of the welfare state to the north.
‘Welfare reform’ as they call it, coupled with the north’s ‘budget’ were the only items ever raised in public by the proconsul and her new best friends the DUP. The matters hanging fire since unionists’ refusal to accept the Haass recommendations, were ignored by the Conservatives and DUP. The so-called draft agreement actually diluted what Haass had proposed. Incredibly, given the urgency of the issue, a 15-member Flags, Culture and Identity Commission was proposed: to report in 18 months. In the immortal words of John McEnroe, “you cannot be serious”. In short Sinn Fein were never going to get anything out of the talks even if they had agreed to welfare cuts.
In the end Sinn Fein’s position will be vindicated. The executive will limp on. Peter Robinson will not pull it down. He does not want an election in which he will not be a candidate for he won’t stand again for the assembly. In any case with the TUV likely to win a couple of seats and Sinn Fein increase its lead over the disintegrating SDLP, Martin McGuinness will be first minister.
Secondly the Conservatives will not win an overall majority in May. Indeed, as Sinn Fein have calculated, it is worth hanging on for a Labour-led coalition at Westminster which will undo Cameron’s attempt to destroy Britain’s postwar consensus on welfare. Why would Sinn Fein concede measures now which are against the ethos of the party and electorally damaging north and south when those very measures could be overturned by legislation next September?
Both Labour and the Conservatives are committed to continuing cuts for the next five years. It goes without saying that it will be far easier for Sinn Fein to make a deal with a majority Labour coalition whose cuts will be more palatable. So both Sinn Fein and the DUP will hang in, each hoping for a different election result in May. After yesterday’s fiasco the one certainty is the current clueless proconsul is a goner regardless of the result.