Newton Emerson: Fresh Start for North in 2016 looks predictable

Despite its name, the new deal is about as fresh as twice-reheated turkey

A huge wave of public goodwill towards new DUP leader Arlene Foster  has helped the optimistic mood in Northern Ireland this Christmas. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

A huge wave of public goodwill towards new DUP leader Arlene Foster has helped the optimistic mood in Northern Ireland this Christmas. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

‘Predictable’ is used as an insult in Northern Ireland, especially regarding politics, yet perceptible optimism for the year ahead owes much to an unusual sense of certainty. The Fresh Start agreement, delivered in November and operating on schedule, sets out a detailed plan for at least the first half of 2016.

Government departments will be merged, and Assembly and Executive rules will be changed in the biggest Stormont restructuring since the Belfast Agreement.

The toxic issue of welfare reform has been addressed – and then defused by passing powers back to London for the next 12 months.

A special budget has been produced for the 2015-2016 financial year and funding has been secured for a huge public sector redundancy scheme intended – along with lower corporation tax – to “rebalance the economy”. These interlocking policies add up to an entire centre-right manifesto.

The question of dealing with the past has been parked, which is evidently how Sinn Féin and the British government like it. Other contentious issues such as flags and parading have been dumped on to a conveyor belt of committees and new commissions that will run for up to 18 months.

Making plans to this degree might appear to invite disaster but that ignores two unique features of Fresh Start.

United front

First, it is a deal between Sinn Féin the DUP. Stormont’s previous setpiece agreements have required all-party unanimity, but in 2015 this assumption broke down as the smaller parties refused to play along. Having finally been forced to go it alone, Sinn Féin and the DUP seem to find the experience liberating – presenting a united front that is clearly more stable for having fewer participants.

The second unique feature of Fresh Start is that it is about as fresh as twice-reheated turkey. Its text is largely the same as last December’s Stormont House Agreement, which fell when Sinn Féin pulled out over welfare reform. That in turn was barely distinguishable from the preceding December’s Haass agreement, which fell when unionists pulled out over parading. Haass itself was based on earlier deals dating back to 2005. Even welfare reform had been agreed by Sinn Féin and the DUP separately once before.

Far from creating a sense of inevitable failure, this has created a sense of inevitable concurrence. Everyone knew this deal was coming. Having done it, Sinn Féin and the DUP have no choice but to get on with it. If it fails, they will simply have to do it all over again.

Events can be counted on to derail the best political plans, yet Fresh Start’s tortuous history has encompassed so many events that it has almost become a general inoculation.

To take a current example, Gerry Adams’s reaction to the verdict on Thomas “Slab” Murphy would have caused great difficulties for unionism until recently. However, two murders in Belfast over the summer mean Sinn Féin’s links to the IRA army council have already been subsumed into Fresh Start’s negotiations.

Those murders caused the UUP to go into unofficial opposition in an attempt to pressurise the DUP for continuing with the talks. However, everyone knew a formal opposition was about to be established, because that had been agreed at the previous year’s talks.

Under Fresh Start, London can be blamed for any welfare cuts in 2016. Parading has yet to be dealt with, but the last two marching seasons were kept peaceful by unionism to assist in dealing with it, so a bad summer next year – even if it happens – is not feared. Like some paranoid ancient king, Stormont has been ingesting little bits of poison for so long that it can survive a formally fatal dose.

Balance of power

The main event to which Fresh Start’s timetable leads is next May’s Assembly election. No change in the balance of power is expected, though the DUP’s lead over Sinn Féin could narrow significantly.

If Sinn Féin became the largest party, it is widely believed that unionism would struggle to accept the role of deputy first minister and power-sharing would collapse. The DUP and UUP demean themselves by not debunking this insult to democracy.

However, the departmental restructuring in Fresh Start renames the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to the Executive Office, while Sinn Féin wants to re-title both incumbents as joint first ministers. So new DUP leader Arlene Foster has options if Martin McGuinness beats her at the polls.

A huge wave of public goodwill towards Foster has helped the optimistic mood in Northern Ireland. Although much of this is wishful thinking around her untested capabilities, there seems little doubt that she will be less of a machine politician than her predecessor Peter Robinson, meaning less of the dry tactical positioning that has so exhausted the public and the political system over the past three years of deadlock.

For Northern republicans, the main event next year is the general election in the South. Adams has gambled his party’s entire peace process strategy on the recession’s short window of opportunity for anti-austerity politics. Blocking welfare reform at Stormont was connected to this, so unblocking it concedes that the window is closing and Stormont should be less affected by hard-left posturing in the Dáil.

Sinn Féin’s only hope of getting into office in Dublin next year is as Fianna Fáil’s junior partner. While that outside possibility would have long-term implications for Ireland as a whole, it would have surprisingly little short-term impact at Stormont, where the concept of Sinn Féin in office is hardly new.

In fact, if there is one thing republicans and unionists agree on, it is that shaking the South out of its complacency on the North would be an entertaining spectacle.

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