There was a surreal air in Belfast on Monday as talks aimed at restoring power-sharing in the north of Ireland went ahead, even as the DUP were separately negotiating to enter a deal on government with the Tories in London.
With the talks in London still ongoing, there is to be a delay of some days in the resumption of the Westminster parliament. The traditional opening, where the English queen declares an agenda for government from the throne, has been postponed.
The planned ‘Queen’s Speech’ on June 19 had already been due to clash with the start of Brexit talks, and both are now expected to be delayed.
Following the results of last week’s general election, the Conservatives narrowly lost their overall majority and Tory leader Theresa May immediately turned to hardline unionists for the necessary support. Few details have so far emerged of the talks between the DUP and Tory delegations, however, their planned coalition has infuriated a wide section of British society. There has been a stream of hostile commentary in the mainstream media about the North’s dominant unionist party and its history of bigotry and paramilitarism.
Tory backbenchers, already furious at the electoral setback following a disastrous election campaign by Theresa May, could yet object to the deal amid calls for May to step down as party leader.
Up for discussion in the talks are said to be the resumption of all sectarian marches by the Orange Order, including the notorious Drumcree parade through the nationalist Garvaghy Road in Portadown.
Also likely to be included in the discussions will be impunity for loyalist paramilitaries and British military war criminals. Other key issues include the unionist veto against political change at Stormont, human rights and the legal status of the Irish language.
Amid continuing questions over a half-million-pound donation to the DUP towards the Brexit campaign effort, the DUP is also said to be insisting that the extreme right-wing Nigel Farage, former leader of UKIP, is handed a role in the Brexit negotiations with the EU.
The discussions may also include a guarantee that no referendum on Irish unity will take place in the lifetime of the parliament, and a gerrymander of proposed changes to the North’s 18 electoral constituenciess.
Leading his party’s delegation at Stormont outside Belfast, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said that any deal between the DUP and the Conservatives to prop up a Theresa May-led government would be a “coalition for chaos”.
Mr Adams was speaking at a press conference at Stormont with the party’s seven Westminster MPs by his side.
“We don’t believe that any deal between the DUP here and the English Tories will be good for the people here. Any deal that undercuts in any way the process here of the Good Friday and other agreements is one that has to be opposed by progressives,” he said.
Mr Adams added there was a “huge onus” on Taoiseach Enda Kenny and the incoming Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to “ensure that all aspects of these agreements are implemented”.
Earlier, Mr Varadkar said the British government should not become too close to any party in the North of Ireland. “Our role as governments here in Dublin and in London is to act as co-guarantors and not to be close to any particular party,” he said.
Mr Adams warned on the consequences of Brexit and said Sinn Fein would not reject any positive deal that might emerge from these DUP-Tory talks. “We never turn up our nose at good deals. Let’s wait until we see what sort of deal is done,” he said.
Mr Adams also said there was no pressure on Sinn Fein to end its Westminster abstentionist policy. “There is no pressure on Sinn Fein to do anything except fulfil the mandate that we received” in the Westminster election.
While he said that Mr Brokenshire should not chair the talks, he added that he had nothing personal against him, but the British government was partisan and a player in the talks.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood insisted Brokenshire could not be an impartial chairman. “If James Brokenshire thinks for one second that he can be an independent arbiter, an independent chairman of these talks he is absolutely wrong,” he said.
An independent person was required to chair the talks “otherwise they are going nowhere”, added Mr Eastwood.