You’d think, with Brexit talks starting sometime after Wednesday, that Northern Irish politicians would have something better to do than engage in the amusing party politics that leave everyone else in Ireland and Britain stone cold. But nope, given the possibility that the EU could insist on the imposition of a land border between the north and south of Ireland, and at the very least the challenge of sorting out how to stem the free flow of booze and fags from a UK outside the EU to a Republic within it, the parties are locked on the following issues: the status of the Irish language (Sinn Fein); the extent to which members of the armed services and former paramilitaries should be pursued for killings during the Troubles (answer, any or all of the above, if they look like they may be guilty); and whether Arlene Foster, DUP leader, should step down as leader of the party on account of her involvement with the exciting 'cash for ash' affair, a green energy scheme which apparently enabled farmers to charge the taxpayer for heating their barns – something I’ve yet to hear the Green Party sound off about. There are other issues, obviously, but these are just some of the things which have caused Sinn Fein to gather up its skirts and flounce out of the power sharing executive.
James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland Secretary – whom the DUP says Sinn Fein is out to undermine – had the unenviable task of choosing between the following options: restoring direct rule from Westminster or prolonging the talks past the deadline today, or holding fresh elections at a considerable cost to the taxpayer. It's no surprise that he appears to have ruled out that last option first; the last elections saw Sinn Fein narrow the gap between themselves and the DUP to a single seat and besides, there are better uses for five million quid.
It is, as ever, hard to know which party is most obnoxious here, but a few reflections present themselves. One is that Sinn Fein is plainly just spoiling for a fight if it’s making an issue out of the Irish language, which practically no one in the north of Ireland speaks as a native - for that you have to go to another bit of Ulster, Donegal. As Ian Paisley Junior observes, it’s OK as an issue; just something that should be sorted out in government, not as a deal breaker.
The other obvious truth is that Arlene Foster shouldn’t be DUP leader while there’s an official investigation into the renewable energy scheme going on. I fancy Ian Paisley Junior, the son of, as head of the party, but then I’m swayed by the fact that he’s both good looking and rather charming; I’m very shallow. Anyway, 'Anyone But Arlene', I think is the gist. As for the investigation into killings during the Troubles, it’s just repulsive that this is a party issue at all.
It’s hard not to feel sympathetic to James Brokenshire. I’d restore direct rule any day before paying for another election – sit tight and see just how long the interested parties manage without the salaries that go with devolved government; not that long, I fancy.
But as compromises go, he could do worse than adopt the sage advice of Bertie Ahern, former Irish prime minister and a born fixer if ever there was one. He counsels extending the talks…until Easter: that is, until the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement nearly twenty years ago. That anniversary may concentrate the minds of the unlovely representatives of the people of the six counties. What a shower. What an unbelievable shower.