The relief, the positives and the damage of NI breakthrough

After 10 bruising days for the political process, relief rather than celebration was the dominant public reaction to the breakthrough in the policing talks.

Agreement was eventually reached on important issues such as policing devolution and marching regulation, together with an exploration of new ways to make the administration function more smoothly.

The period of negotiation showed widespread public support and a sense of protectiveness for the Belfast Assembly. This was something of a paradox in that many individual politicians are held in low regard, largely for their alleged financial greed.

For supporters of the peace process the outcome has major positives. The immediate crisis has been dealt with, the Assembly has been saved, and all sides are promising to make a fresh start.

But the tedious and protracted negotiations have caused damage. Local parties showed over many months that they could not work out their differences, so two prime ministers had to trudge to Belfast to sort things out.

The talks went on for so long that the prevailing public mood turned into one of exasperation that professional politicians could not reach agreement. The issues, though significant, were after all not the sort of life-or-death matters which once featured in the peace process.

The lack of negotiating skills was starkly on show. This criticism applies mostly to the Democratic Unionists, headed by Peter Robinson who, although a seasoned politician, lacks direct negotiating experience. Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness are veterans of hundreds of meetings over many years with the British and Irish governments and others.

In this case republicans had an advantage in that the two governments shared their aim of achieving policing devolution as quickly as possible. This is in line with their philosophy of maintaining momentum in the process.

The DUP has favoured a much more cautious and slower pace but now the deadlock has been broken with an agreement which includes a web of specific dates for progress on both devolution and parades. But no one expects plain sailing now. For one thing, Mr Robinson still faces inquiries into the conduct of his wife Iris, a former MP whose financial affairs are the subject of a police investigation.

This new agreement means the avoidance of an Assembly election which might well have been highly disruptive. But the Westminster contest, which still lies ahead, can be expected to generate heat and confrontational rhetoric.

On the unionist side, Mr Robinson will be defending the new agreement against hardline opponents. They are already claiming it is a craven sell-out and a victory for republicans.

For these and other reasons, the next few months are unlikely to provide a soothing respite from all the recent bruising. Instead, the likelihood is that more contusions lie ahead.

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