‘How long does it take James Brokenshire to boil an egg? Three minutes. Then another three minutes. And then another.’ So went the joke about the former Northern Ireland Secretary who spent much of 2017 setting one ‘immovable’ deadline on talks to restore devolution, only to relent and relent again.
Today [January 16] will be the first anniversary of the collapse of power-sharing in Northern Ireland. For much of the intervening period the aptly-named Brokenshire resembled a dad on Christmas Day, trying to put together his son’s new 2000-piece Lego set of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Confused about how the multiple fragments fitted together and over-awed by the sheer task.
His successor Karen Bradley, handed the job in last week’s reshuffle, will have to account for his failure to get the show back on the road. The prospect of Direct Rule from Whitehall looms. If that happens, we are in full-on crisis.
Talks about restoring devolution are planned, but Theresa May will soon learn how much time and effort restoring Northern Ireland’s equilibrium can take up. Months of negotiations throughout 2017, (pockmarked by elections to the assembly and then the British general election and subsequent tie-up between the Tories and DUP), have failed to address the underlying problems.
Nationalists contend – with a welter of evidence – that the Democratic Unionists have an antipathy to the very notion of power-sharing, which has kept progress to a minimum since the initial breakthrough a decade ago, when Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness first went into government.
They complain (and this is not just Sinn Fein, by any means) that legislation enshrining the Irish language - long promised in a series of previous agreements over the past decade - has simply not materialised and that the DUP’s block on it is part of a wider pattern of hostility to Irish culture and the rights of minorities.
Certainly many unionist politicians go in with their studs up and just can’t help making a difficult situation worse with a combination of bellicosity and mean-spiritedness. (A proposed grant cut to an Irish language charity by former DUP minister, Paul Givan, in December 2016 was the final straw for many nationalists, precipitating the assembly’s collapse).
They feel that despite repeated overtures towards Unionism, there is never anything that comes back the other way. The efforts of Martin McGuinness in showing respect to ‘the other’ (attending state banquets/meeting the Queen/visiting Battle of the Somme memorials) has never seen Arlene Foster reciprocate.
So the only way for things to restart at Stormont is for the DUP to give ground.
Clearly they don’t want to. Why would they? They’re propping up the Conservatives in the House of Commons and feel that they’re calling the shots. Only, they’re not. They can’t access the bulk of the money they bartered out of Theresa May, in exchange for supporting her at Westminster, until the assembly is restored.
The two-year package, worth around £1.5 billion, is time-limited and reliant on Theresa May’s continued residence in Downing Street. Clearly, this point is moot. The prospect of their deal being continued by Chancellor John McDonnell - a committed Irish republican - in the event of Labour being elected is almost too surreal to contemplate.
The Prime Minister has enough in her over-flowing in-tray without now having to deal with the consequences of passing legislation to bring back Direct Rule from Whitehall - in the event of a permanent stalemate at Stormont - and all the volatility that will bring. The DUP needs to do her a favour, if not out on beneficence, then out of self-interest. If May fails, they do too.
So they need to give ground in order to restore devolution and simply bring Northern Ireland into line with Scotland and Wales - which already have legislation recognising the special status of native languages.
But all successful political deals have to be on a ‘something for something’ basis. If getting their hands on their coalition bung isn’t enough of a sweetener, last month’s deal on the Irish border is perhaps a second consideration.
The full implications of these few woolly paragraphs are still disputed, but it seems clear that the devolved assembly now has a bigger role in the overall calculus of how the post-Brexit border arrangement will work in practice.
Paragraph 50 of the agreement between the British Government and the European Union confirms that no new regulatory barriers must develop between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, ‘unless, consistent with the 1998 [Good Friday] Agreement,’ and that the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly must ‘agree that distinct arrangements are appropriate for Northern Ireland.’
Might this be enough to persuade the DUP that they need to be on the pitch to safeguard what they perceive - rightly or wrongly - to be a victory? If so, Theresa May should cash-in her chips and put pressure on the Duppers to kick-start devolution in Northern Ireland.
While it can still be saved.
Kevin Meagher is author of ‘A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about,’ published by Biteback
UPDATE: This blog was edited to remove a paragraph that fell beneath our editorial standards