Northern Ireland is stuck in the same old political rut

Fmr. UK minister: May has lost control of Brexit
Fmr. UK minister: May has lost control of Brexit

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Nic Robertson is CNN's international diplomatic editor. The opinions in this article are those of the author.

(CNN)So often, it's not what people say, but what they don't say that tells you everything you need to know.

And so it has been in Northern Ireland this week.
A couple of decades ago, I was in and out of Northern Ireland fairly regularly to cover bombings, shootings and the occasional peace talks. These days, not so much.
Over time, my visits gradually petered out. But this week, I have been parachuted in again off the back of Theresa May's spectacular electoral miscalculation.
    Like everywhere else in the UK, Northern Ireland's politicians are reeling and responding to the unpredicted election results.
    In the wake of Britain's hung parliament, the province's very right-of-center, pro-British Unionist party the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party), suddenly became kingmakers in the UK government, thus upsetting the province's delicate power balance.
    On their home turf, the DUP's back has been to the wall recently, outflanked by the nationalist, pro-Irish Sinn Fein party, which pulled out of the province's power-sharing government in January, accusing the DUP of wasting millions on a botched green energy scheme.
    It's made for an ugly few months as both sides have opted to trade recriminations, rather than bury the hatchet once and for all and get back to the job of governing a divided people.
    When I spoke with Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader, it was what he didn't say that I found most striking. He didn't douse the DUP in a full-throated lambasting, as he might once have done.
    He was altogether more sanguine; telling me that whatever deals the DUP makes with Theresa May, it will all "end in tears." He said that the British people would soon be "educated" in the darker side of the DUP's shortcomings on equality and inclusiveness.
    He expressed an inevitability about it all, for which he could muster neither anger nor despair.
    May seeks deal with Northern Ireland's DUP
    Northern Ireland DUP Theresa May deal Nic Robertson PKG_00000525

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    One could write that off as just bluster, but his demeanor and tone was so relaxed, he gave the impression that it was all just a matter of time.
    His attitude suggested that little political progress in Northern Ireland can be made until the DUP's dance with May's Conservatives -- and the inevitable consequences -- has fully played out.
    Adams, who is now not far away from his 70th birthday, walks with less ease than he once did. His voice has softened and he speaks more slowly. But he is still savvy -- some might say wily -- and has been successfully setting Republican strategy for half a century. It's clear he thinks there's little chance of anyone else taking the reins before the DUP's marriage to May ends.
    Not long after speaking with Adams, I found myself listening to the DUP's leaders, Arlene Foster and her deputy, Nigel Dodds.
    Foster was firm and in control, refusing to reveal her terms for backing May in the British Parliament. But Dodds, who -- unlike Foster -- has a seat in Westminster, spilled the beans on what they were really thinking.
    His was a pent-up anger, verging on vitriol: a well-rehearsed takedown of Sinn Fein and all it stands for and against, laying blame at its leadership's door for lack of progress in getting power-sharing talks back on their feet in Northern Ireland. "We didn't bring down the assembly. We didn't bring down the executive."
    For sure his feelings will have stewed over the years, perhaps marinated in frustration over the Sinn Fein intransigence of the past few months, but he let them out and Adam's didn't.
    What he said -- and more to the point how he said it -- left little doubt that compromise is not in the air.
    Did he uncork himself so liberally amid the exuberance of suddenly having the Prime Minister's ear and some leverage over her actions? Or is this simply his style, and in the years I've spent away from Northern Ireland I've forgotten how easily passion and venom are confused?
    Over the past week I've had to rediscover my focus on Northern Ireland. Having spoken to people from all over the political spectrum, I'm remembering how to read between the lines.
    What's clear is that while we've been ignoring it, relentless internecine skirmishes continue, and like Northern Ireland's summer showers that drive in hard and then disperse, expect more storms over the coming months.
    Little here has changed: the people are still lovely while the politicians are still stuck in a rut.
    After the Good Friday agreement, many of us put Northern Ireland to the back of our mind. Blissful ignorance is a wonderful thing. But no amount of goodwill can change the fact that politically, Northern Ireland is still a tinderbox.