Give Me a Crash Course In . . . Stormont’s Fresh Start

This week’s deal puts the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly back in business

Powersharing deal: Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin and Peter Robinson of the DUP at Stormont. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

Powersharing deal: Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin and Peter Robinson of the DUP at Stormont. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

 

So Northern Ireland politicians have struck another deal
Yes. On Tuesday Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan and Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers announced an agreement to try to politically anchor the powersharing Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. It’s called A Fresh Start: The Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan. It comes after 10 weeks of negotiations during which Villiers, as she rather wearily informed us, chaired more than 150 talks sessions.

A “fresh start” for Stormont. Is joy unconfined on the streets of Belfast, Derry, Ballymena and Cullybackey?
Hardly. Politics has been in a disrupted state for a couple of years – to such an extent that the public are becoming rather disillusioned with the whole project – as Northern politicians
realise. Most of what is proposed in this agreement was also proposed in the failed Richard Haass deal of Christmas 2013 and the failed Stormont House Agreement of Christmas last year. So the “fresh start” title triggered some snorts of dismissal.

But isn’t there relief at a comprehensive deal?
There is relief, but this is not a comprehensive deal: it is a partial one. The agreement covers myriad issues, the most pressing of which were how to deal with paramilitaries in the wake of the murder of the Belfast republican Kevin McGuigan; breaking the welfare deadlock; and helping victims and survivors of the Troubles. Two of these matters were resolved to a degree, but there is virtually nothing in the 67-page “fresh start” document for the victims.

Are they and their representatives annoyed?
They are furious. Their anger is reflected in the comments of Sandra Peake, chief executive of Wave, which represents groups such as the families of the disappeared. “Where is the fresh start for the bilateral amputees, the blind, the paraplegic and the severely traumatised?” she asked. Most of the blame for that failure was aimed at Villiers; the British government was accused of “hiding behind the cloak of British national security” to prevent the truth behind British state killings and alleged collusion with loyalist paramilitaries fully emerging. Work will continue to try to resolve this issue, Dublin and London and the parties promised.

It all sounds a bit disappointing
That would be unfair. There is a lot in the document. And remember that Peter Robinson, Northern Ireland’s First Minister and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, is so satisfied that he feels the deal allows him to quit politics with his legacy established. Primarily the agreement ends the impasse over British welfare cuts – but not quite as Sinn Féin and the SDLP were demanding. Sinn Féin wanted guarantees for welfare recipients into the future. Instead it was agreed that welfare claimants and low-paid workers in Northern Ireland will receive £585 million more than their counterparts in Britain over the next four years.

And what about the fallout from the murders of Kevin McGuigan and Gerard Jock Davison?
Those killings are addressed under the broad heading of “paramilitarism and tackling organised crime”. An international body modelled on the disbanded Independent Monitoring Commission will be formed to adjudicate on the status of the IRA and other paramilitaries, and Villiers and Ministers for Justice David Ford, in the North, and Frances Fitzgerald, in the South, will establish a task force involving the PSNI, the Garda, the UK National Crime Agency and customs officials to combat cross-Border crime.

Was that the extent of the agreement?
No, paramilitarism and welfare were the must-solve issues to keep devolution working, but there is more. The Executive was facing an “unsustainable” £600 million “black hole”, but now it has been given about £2.35 billion in extra spending powers over the next five years. That has stabilised Stormont and also will address matters such as reducing corporation tax from 20 per cent to the same 12.5 per cent rate as the South; parading; flags; slimming down the size of the Executive and Assembly; and clamping down on dissidents. Dublin will also provide £75 million over three years to upgrade the A5 road from Derry to Strabane.

So it’s not a bad agreement, then
It’s better that powersharing should be working than not, and the bottom line is that Stormont is back in business. Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin, his deputy, reached for the inspirational line when they said the deal had the potential to “nudge history forward by transforming how we support each other in overcoming our deepest divisions”. Most Northern Ireland people would take that.

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