Can a St Valentine’s Day Agreement be signed to get the collapsed Stormont power-sharing Executive up and running again after more than a year’s stalemate? That’s the key question which emerged after day one of the crucial talks this week in Northern Ireland.
Ironically, if the two main parties – the DUP and Sinn Fein – have to flip on their respective positions politically, then perhaps the deal may be branded the Pancake Tuesday Agreement.
The need for an urgent deal was stressed with the Irish and British Prime Ministers both travelling to Northern Ireland to try and nudge the deal across the line and get it signed.
The mood music from Sinn Fein was more optimistic than from the DUP, which suggests republicans are having more success in selling the deal’s secret contents to their hardliners than the DUP is having in selling the same deal of concessions to its no-nonsense traditional Right-wing fundamentalist faction.
The main sticking point at the moment would appear to be the form of an Irish Language Act. Republicans have always wanted a stand-alone act; Unionists see such an act as undermining their British identity.
Ironically, it was radical Irish Presbyterians – the largest Protestant denomination in the northern counties of Ireland – who saved the Irish language from oblivion in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Heritage-wise, Unionists want formal recognition for their unique language known as Ulster Scots. Even within Unionism, there is a massive debate as to whether Ulster Scots is a genuine language or just a County Antrim dialect developed in Ireland by the Elizabethan, Cromwellian and Williamite Puritan settlers.
For those Unionists who see Ulster Scots as merely a dialect, they wonder why Unionists are not campaigning for the Scottish Gaelic to be extended to Northern Ireland if Unionism is looking to Scotland as the root cause of its heritage.
However, militant Ulster Scots campaigners have got their language at least recognised as a minority European language. Indeed, a February Fudge could nudge the deal across the line – a triple whammy of an Irish language act, Ulster Scots act, and a third act recognising the other new languages and cultures brought into Northern Ireland by the ethnic communities.
Such a triple language agreement would allow all sides to agree to this compromise. The other thorny issues of same-sex marriage could be passed to Westminster to legislate, which would take it literally out of the hands of Northern Irish politicians.
As for the legacy issues, it could be solved by the British Government finding some funding to allow inquests into some of the unsolved murders from the Troubles.
The crucial test is not a case of agreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein, but can the rival camps sell the deal to their respective hawk wings.
As for the three smaller parties – the Ulster Unionists, Alliance and SDLP – they have been effectively excluded from the talks in terms of the content and influence of any deal, fuelling the clear perception that this trio will just have to accept what the ‘Big Two’ decide upon.
What is not in doubt is the dire financial situation which Northern Ireland’s health, education and economy finds itself in – NHS waiting lists are spiralling out of control; many schools will not be able to survive within their current budgets, and even the jewel in the crown of the Northern Ireland economy – bus manufacturer Wrightbus – unveiled the plan that it would have to make almost 100 workers redundant on the very day the two premiers arrived in Northern Ireland to try and seal the deal.
Optimists hope compromise will be the order of the day before the weekend and the deal will be signed. Pessimists believe all the positive mood music is merely the parties and the two governments preparing to indulge in the blame game should no deal emerge by Saturday at the latest.