Pressure points and unintended consequences

 

Before the latest round of Stormont talks began I wasn't the only one sceptical about their purpose and timing.

Now it seems the main point served by the discussions was to provide unionist negotiators with something to boycott.

Although it might be desirable to find a long-term resolution to the entrenched problems of flags, parades and the past, the main priority over the next few weeks and months will be keeping people safe and keeping the wheels of government turning.

The suspension of the North South Council meeting in Dublin is potentially more alarming than the talks walkout.

Impact

The North/South Ministerial Council is one of the institutions linked under the Good Friday Agreement to the assembly and the executive, and the failure to hold the meeting meant the postponement of an announcement on two cross-border rail projects.

From a public relations perspective, though, it's clear unionist leaders wouldn't have relished a photo opportunity with their Sinn Féin counterparts and Irish government ministers just when they want to be seen reflecting the anger of ordinary loyalists over the Parades Commission's Ardoyne determination.

Another political pressure point worth keeping an eye on will be next Tuesday's planned meeting of the Stormont Executive.

Does that go ahead and, if not, what impact might there be on outstanding budgetary decisions, known in the jargon as 'June monitoring'?

Consequences

The Stormont institutions have survived protest action before - for example Sinn Féin's five-month boycott of executive meetings over the delay in devolving justice back in 2008.

Unionists say they want to provide a "safety valve" showing loyalists there is an alternative to violent street disorder.

If the UDA and UVF honour assurances the unionists claim to have been given to ensure all protests are peaceful, then the boycott of rudderless inter-party discussions may seem a small price to pay.

However, once political parties embark on protests it can lead to tit for tat responses from their opponents.

Let's hope Stormont doesn't fall foul of Robert K. Merton's law of unintended consequences, one of the causes of which the American sociologist defined as a tendency to allow immediate concerns to override long-term interests.

Note: Since I wrote this blog the DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson told me the decision to postpone the North/South Council meeting was not part of the joint unionist "graduated response", but the consequence of unionist ministers being too busy in meetings in Belfast about parades to attend the Dublin gathering.

That said, we have yet to have any clarity on whether executive meetings will be impacted as a result of the proposed unionist protest action.

However an statement from the Orange Order has emphasised the need for any protests to be "lawful and peaceful" adding that violence will "only play into the hands of our enemies".

 
Mark Devenport, Political editor, Northern Ireland Article written by Mark Devenport Mark Devenport Political editor, Northern Ireland

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