When in 1987 Stephen Roche won the Tour de France, Charlie Haughey didn’t turn up a couple of days beforehand to cheer him on. Charlie waited until Roche had done the business, then like a fly to a honey-pot Charlie appeared in Paris, sucking up some of the Irish cyclist’s success.
Which is why any talk of Theresa May and Leo Varadkar turning up in Belfast yesterday to encourage the DUP and Sinn Féin to an agreement is high-grade, carefully-brushed twaddle. The British prime minister and the Irish Taoiseach were there to join in the whoop-de-doo of success. Instead, as the SDLP leader Colm Eastwood said, they returned home embarrassed and, I expect, muttering more than one rude word under their breath.
Why was there no agreement yesterday? It seems pretty clear that Sinn Féin were prepared to sign on the dotted line, but the DUP backed away. Arlene and her lieutenants were afraid that they’d be made to look softies – Jim Allister is already honing his machete to slice chunks off them for being hapless Lundies. Or maybe it was that they enjoyed embarrassing Theresa May so much last time, when she thought she’d got a commitment of support from them the DUPers and then at the last minute was left facing the TV cameras like a stranded stork. “Look at us!” the DUP told their followers. “We can make the British prime minister dance to our tune. Aren’t we clever?” So maybe it was a desire to taste again the elixir of triumphalism that made them go all not-an-inch at the last minute yesterday. Unionist politicians have been past-masters of not-an-inchery for at least a hundred years now.
On this occasion, however, the DUP may have overlooked two things. First, the Tory party is not known for its quality of gentle understanding. Should the opportunity arise, it’ll happily open the helicopter door and send the DUP spinning earthwards without a parachute. Second, the people of the north are not eejits. In her first public act as president of Sinn Féin, Mary-Lou McDonald spoke optimistically of the chances of reaching a deal and restoring the Executive. “If” she added, then paused. “If there is the political will to make this work.” I’ll swear a tiny grin lit up Mary-Lou’s face as she said that.It isn’t good for any political party to be presented to the public as a bunch weak-willed agreement-wreckers. You’d be surprised how many people out there would prefer their politicians to act as grown-ups.