Analysis: Fraught NI talks yield valuable dividend

Collapse of institutions averted following pact between governments and parties

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers with Minister for Foreign Affairs Charles Flanagan after the agreement had been concluded. Photograph: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye.

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers with Minister for Foreign Affairs Charles Flanagan after the agreement had been concluded. Photograph: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye.

 

After 11 weeks of talks and 26 hours of continuous negotiations from Monday into the eve of Christmas Eve, what the North’s five main parties and the British and Irish governments achieved was significant and substantial – if in some ways imperfect.

In this frenetic holiday period, it might not be high on the list of people’s interests that the Northern Ireland parties managed to crack a Christmas deal, but the alternative to agreement could have been political collapse.

People can forget that achieving peace in the 1990s and thereafter shifting from a peace process to a political process and then moving on to something that passes for relatively normal politics, was difficult and hard won.

After considerable political stasis and toxic political relations, there was a lot cynicism about politics among the public in Northern Ireland, while south of the Border these arduous talks might only have registered among the anoraks.

But it was critical that the talks chaired by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan, and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers, should succeed. For a period in recent weeks the omens were not favourable.

Sinn Féin and the SDLP had set their face against welfare reform. The DUP and Ulster Unionists had major concerns over the Haass proposals on the past, parades and flags which effectively are contained in this Stormont House Agreement, although in slightly repackaged form.

Welfare reform

Peter Robinson

And he was surely correct.

Failure to nail a deal would have meant Northern Ireland facing budget cuts of £1.5 billion (€1.9 billion) over the next five years, as the North’s block grant from Westminster was cut back.

Moreover, continuing opposition to welfare change would have led to the British government imposing about £1 billion in penalties over the same period.

In the end, there was an effective trade-off between Sinn Féin and the DUP, the two dominant parties in the Northern Executive. Sinn Féin bit the bullet on welfare change while insisting it had won financial measures that would cushion the impact on the most vulnerable.

When regular politics resumes after the Christmas/New Year holiday it will face charges of “caving in” on welfare and of opposing austerity in the South while supporting it in the North.

That may cause some problems for Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness north of the Border and more particularly for party leader Gerry Adams in the Republic. But hardly serious problems. Adams can argue that he acted in the interests of the political process and the peace process and that concessions gained will offset some or all of the benefit cuts.

If Mr Adams was in any way discomfited by the deal he certainly didn’t show it at Stormont House on Tuesday evening. The Irish delegation led by Flanagan and Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs Seán Sherlock were posing for photographs on the stairs of Stormont House when McGuinness and Adams – somewhat reluctantly, it must be said – were invited to get into the picture. There was some banter about the Shinners and Fine Gael and Labour as one big happy family, with Adams also deciding to take a selfie of the occasion.

Everybody looked tired but nobody looked worried.

Robinson and the DUP will face pressure from the likes of the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice party and from some other disaffected unionists over signing up to what their opponents will describe as a deal that essentially was the same as the one they rejected during the negotiations chaired this time last year by former US diplomat Richard Haass.

Fudge

Resolving parading based on the Stormont House Agreement proposals also will be difficult but no agreement under the sun would make it easy to surmount this intractable problem. The deal offers potential for some resolution but at the end of the day it is a matter that only can be worked out at community level.

If this agreement goes some way to restoring a more moderate form of politics then some of that good manners and goodwill might also transfer down to community level.

And while he might have some concerns, Robinson and the other parties should agree that significant progress was made on the past. Up to £150 million (€190 million) is being provided to help fund bodies that deal with the legacy of the Troubles. That won’t solve all the concerns of victims and survivors but it will help them.

What the parties also demonstrated over these recent weeks was that a collective approach can yield dividends. Last Friday week British prime minister David Cameron was offering what Sinn Féin said was a “derisory” offer of £1 billion. By hard-balling they made him up this to an “additional spending power of almost £2 billion” which the British government said amounted to real funding of £650 million. This in addition to the useful loan-raising powers provided by Cameron.

It was a very good day for Villiers and Flanagan, who basked in the limelight.

No wonder Flanagan was moved to use a timely metaphor: “On one of the darkest days in the bleak midwinter we have forged a broad agreement that will undoubtedly give rise to brighter days in Belfast and throughout Northern Ireland and indeed throughout the island of Ireland.”

He will be accused of exaggeration, but it was a day when Stormont’s institutions were stabilised and some real Christmas political cheer was delivered.