Up to 1,000 people packed into Belfast's Europa hotel last week for a
Cheltenham festival preview night. If there was a preview night for the
return of Stormont, the organisers would be lucky to get 100 and they'd
probably be bussed in by Sinn Féin.
It's not PC to say so but most Northerners, nationalist and unionist,
couldn't care less about restoring devolution. Wednesday's talks with the
political parties were cancelled, yet another deadline failed, and a
blueprint on the way forward is to be prepared by London and Dublin. So
what? Belfast doesn't care.
We constantly hear democracy is being denied to Northern Ireland which longs
for its politicians to get their act together and re-establish Stormont.
It's a tiresome mantra, and it's untrue.
Whenever Radio Ulster's current affairs' programme, Talkback, mentions the
negotiations, the lines are jammed with callers saying the whole Stormont
set-up is a waste of money, and it's time the Brits pulled the plug.
The two governments will publish their proposals before the summer. Only
politicians and journalists will be interested.
Bertie and Blair are keen for a deal. It would boost Fianna Fail's election
prospects, and Blair is likely to hand over to Gordon Brown next year.
Exiting the stage against a backdrop of lasting peace in Belfast, if not in
Baghdad, would be perfect.
Privately, both governments admit they haven't a clue how to pull it off.
There was a huge miscalculation when the DUP triumphed in last year's
Westminster elections. It was presumed the party's head would be turned by
But the DUP, unlike the Ulster Unionists, isn't a party to be seduced by
access to Prime Ministers and Presidents. The Rev Ian Paisley is a 21st
century rarity a politician above temptation. Conviction is all. Even the
best and brightest of Blair's backroom boys didn't stand a chance.
The DUP remains adamant there must be a shadow assembly, with a lengthy
confidence-building period, before Sinn Féin enters government.
It saw David Trimble jump, time and time again, only to be undermined by
some IRA illegal act. It will make that leap but not before several positive
IMC reports. "The DUP isn't frightened of change but it's frightened of
being complicit in change," claims one nationalist talks' insider.
Sinn Féin and the SDLP reject the stepping-stone approach, forseeing years
of DUP foot-dragging. They want an Executive now. Mark Durkan's hardline
position has surprised many unionists.
Nobody doubts the SDLP's desire to see devolution restored. But is Sinn
Féin just going through the motions? Continuing direct rule means it talks
directly to the British government and needn't go downmarket dealing with
unionist 'neanderthals'. A settlement would curtail those high-profile
Downing Street trips.
But that theory isn't completely convincing. The Shinners' over-riding aim
is political power down South. They know that seeing their ministers run the
North would work wonders across the Border, steadying the nerves of
potential middle-class voters concerned about Sinn Féin's fitness for
In the North, the only argument for Stormont that strikes a chord in
republican areas is that if unionists are opposed to devolution, it must be
a good thing.
And nationalists justifiably point out that while IRA activity still
dominates the political agenda, the UDA's attempted murder of a taxi-driver
last weekend passed almost unnoticed.
But while republican grassroots will take to the streets to stop Orange
parades or commemorate the hunger-strikers, marching to 'Bring Back
Stormont' doesn't inspire.
Three years of devolution made little substantial difference to everyday
life in the Bogside or Ballymurphy. There wasn't a noticeable improvement or
deterioration in hospitals, schools or wages.
The absence of a groundswell of opinion demanding a deal makes the two
governments' attempts to secure one harder. London's strategy is to offer
The DUP has just secured a £250 million redundancy package for the Royal
Irish Regiment. A multi-million package for deprived Protestant areas is on
The disastrous on-the-run legislation, and proposals to fund controversial
Community Restorative Justice (CRJ) schemes in nationalist areas were to be
Sinn Féin's sweeteners. "The British should stop indulging spoilt children
and send in Supernanny to sort everything out," says one exasperated SDLP
But the mood on the streets is indifferent. Interest in restoring devolution
is a minority sport. Most of us are concentrating on more important
matters: is Moscow Flyer too old to win a third Champion Chase this week at