The people of Wales had a bit of a shock at the weekend when they felt the tremors of a 4.4 magnitude earthquake. 
While some people believed that the walls were moving due to the after effects of a heavy Friday night, others were very much aware that the ground itself was shaking and watched as lightweight ornaments jiggled across the mantlepiece. With the epicentre recorded to be only 12 miles off the coast of Swansea, it was the largest earthquake to be felt in the United Kingdom in a decade.
Unfortunately, we in Northern Ireland had no such shocking event. Indeed, it seemed that the inevitable finally happened last week and a final halt was called to this apparent final chance at talks to restore a devolved government here.
I’d have been disappointed if I hadn’t been expecting this to be the eventual outcome. We have, after all, given the parties four hundred days to come to some kind of agreement which to anyone else, would be more than enough time to get things back on track. We’ve had that many fresh starts, false starts, stop-starts and no starts that eventually someone was going to have to admit that there wasn’t any hope if things continued the way that they were.
I didn’t however expect the announcement to come last week given how optimistic many seemed to be earlier in the week. On Sunday night, political journalists and commentators started whispering about the possibility of Theresa May paying a visit the following day and so she did, joined by her Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar.
Now, I took this as a good sign because the two of them aren’t going to drop everything they have scheduled for a Monday morning and pop over to Northern Ireland unless there’s a good reason for it. Let’s be honest: it’s lovely here and everything, but I doubt either of them see Belfast as somewhere to go for a flying visit to pay a cheery hello to their political friends. It just doesn’t work like that. So, I would imagine that the two had all but been promised that a deal was imminent and that it would be in their best interests to show their support when it was announced.
But this is politics in Northern Ireland so of course things aren’t going to happen as they should do.
The first clues came on Monday morning when the DUP denied that they were anywhere close to an agreement and when the two prime ministers arrived, that became abundantly clear. If things were coming to a successful close, we would have expected the key players to emerge from Stormont House with beaming smiles to give a glorious press conference. Instead, May and Varadkar weren’t seen until dusk was falling and they seemed to be making vaguely hopeful holding statements regarding a deal in the near future in a transparently desperate attempt to save some face over this pointless trip.
Fast forward two days later and it was Valentine’s Day. Surely, this was one day when we could have expected more jovial attitudes given that the Sinn Fein and DUP tummies should have been filled up with pancakes adorned with all the toppings from the day before and chocolates from their loved ones that morning. Here there had to be some kind of goodwill, as the day too coincided with Ash Wednesday: a day for penitence and to start anew. A day that begins forty days of setting aside personal indulgences and remember the sacrifices that Jesus made in the desert as told in the Bible.
So it was a day when all should have been more concessionary for one reason or another but alas it was not to be. That afternoon, the final breakup occurred. The trial separation had proved much too enjoyable and it seemed that the two parties could not find a way to co-habit peacefully as they once did. Divorce proceedings were to begin with Westminster taking charge.
Really the whole thing is a prime example of those times when if you didn’t laugh about something, you’d cry instead.
As each party’s representatives stepped out to face the waiting media at Stormont, it seemed that the plot was thickening and some began to wonder if one side was being a little sparse on detail when it came to explaining the whole truth of how they’d finally come to the decision to give up.
Sinn Fein claimed that there had been an agreement reached amongst the negotiating teams but they weren’t going to let the public in on what that agreement actually contained. The DUP simply said that there was “no current prospect of these discussions leading to an Executive being formed.” The rest of the parties were angry at the day’s developments as they had once again been left out of any discussions despite repeatedly asking to be kept in the loop and saw this decision to stop talks as a destruction of all that had been achieved since the Good Friday Agreement over the sake of a few petty differences.
Although interestingly, the plot has thickened since then. From details published on Eamonn Mallie’s website, it appears that there was indeed a draft agreement that had been worked out between Sinn Fein and the DUP that did contain a form of a stand-alone ‘Irish Language Act’ which was something the DUP had consistently said they were against. This sat alongside two others: an ‘Ulster Scots Act’ and a ‘Respecting Language and Diversity Act’. Given that Mallie isn’t one to publish anything without proof, it seems that the problems within the parties themselves run deeper than many thought.
Apparently both the DUP and Sinn Fein still ultimately want devolution but I just don’t see how they can achieve that if they were supposedly so close to a deal but then got cold feet and ran away from any kind of commitment to it. I imagine the two Prime Ministers were left feeling like jilted partners at the altar when they were effectively told at their visits were a waste of time and an unnecessary distraction.
So where does that leave us now? Even a week on, no-one seems to know. The Secretary of State is to bringing the Commons up to speed on the whole situation this week but isn’t giving any clues as to what she is going to recommend is the way forward.
I don’t envy her because I don’t think there’s anything she could do that would leave the majority happy. In the short term, she needs to do what our MLAs have neglected over the past months and pass a budget so as to allow for future planning within Northern Ireland. However, there are many who feel that any form of Direct Rule would have to be under the joint authority of both Dublin and London whereas others who are still stuck in pre-millennial ages baulk at the idea of Dublin having any involvement on sheer principle. Add to this the current confusion over Brexit and borders, it’s all just a mess. All I know is that people are starting to talk about another election, I honestly don’t think I could face that prospect. I doubt any of us could.