Stormont Talks: another staging post on a slow political journey

Image title

THE collective political minds of London, Dublin and Belfast are trying to get a fresh deal over the line at Stormont.

If they reach agreement over the next few days, we can ignore the now obligatory claims of a 'breakthrough moment', which the politicians have sought to brand every new agreement reached since Good Friday, 1998.

It will at best be another staging post in the evolving political process for Stormont.

Progress is painfully slow, with politics moving at the pace set by big parties like Sinn Féin and the DUP as they continue their battle with each other. Politicians in London and Dublin also have their own agendas when it comes to the peace process.

RTÉ and BBC NI sought some answers on the future with the joint survey they published in a complex simultaneous broadcast split between studios in Belfast and Dublin.

The survey confirmed that on social issues such as same-sex marriage, religiously mixed marriages, and on other questions such as cross-border travel, there was a fair degree of common ground across the island.

But the programme's lengthy debate on the political future was largely confined to the single issue of support for a 'United Ireland'.

The findings merely echoed the results of previous polls, confirming scepticism about the chances of creating a reunited single state.

The debate then inevitably centred on where that left Sinn Féin.

But the factors driving change are not just the desires of political parties.

Economic realities could ensure that a sufficient number of northern nationalists give tacit support to maintaining the Union, narrowing the prospects for change.

Separate to that, however, there are the population shifts that suggest the Protestant/Unionist majority is fading in Northern Ireland.

But the question of how that might be handled politically in the future remains a taboo topic for much of the media.

Demographic change might, for example, see an eventual maturing of the structures set in place by the Good Friday Agreement, which could be adjusted to create joint British/Irish authority over Northern Ireland. The 'two flags' solution.

That would also see the UK continuing to foot most of the bill for running the place - since all London longs for is peaceful stability.

Such a scenario might calm the fears of people like Fine Gael's Jimmy Deenihan who, half way through the TV debate, suddenly revealed his worry about where to find the money for any unity project.

Joint-Authority mightn't suit the current political agendas of those parties pushing for Irish unity at one end of the scale, or those at the other end of the political spectrum who resist any constitutional change at all.

But a mid-way compromise could ultimately give both unionist and republican communities much of what they want.

As Gerry Adams said in an interview with The Detail as far back as 2013: "What is Irish unity?”

Change along those lines is one possible trajectory in the search for a long term solution. Whatever happens, the future will require compromise from all sides.

The similarity in social outlooks across the north and south, to the degree that it was reflected in the RTÉ/BBC survey, may in time also be reflected in a middle ground solution to the 'constitutional question'.

That wider debate on the political future didn't take place on the cross-border TV experiment and it won't be kick-started by whatever the Stormont talks deliver.

But, in the week that saw the loss of 1,000 jobs in Co Antrim alone, imagine if the constitutional issue was finally resolved?

Maybe then Stormont would really have to focus entirely on delivering on bread and butter issues.

Wouldn't that represent a 'breakthrough moment'?