Devolution gets a reprieve thanks to Stormont agreement

Move to strengthen cross-border security co-operation is a critical element in deal

 

There’s a large element once again of kicking the can down the road in important elements of the 67-page deal agreed in Stormont House on Tuesday. A key aspect, on dealing with the remnants of paramilitaries, consists only of a promise to do so and a framework of committees for the work, while no agreement was forthcoming on “legacy” issues at all. Victims, disappointingly, will have to wait on promises of further talks, the fifth time since the Eames-Bradley proposals of 2009 that attempts to address the past have failed.

The real importance of the overambitiously named “Fresh Start: The Stormont House Agreement and Implementation Plan” lies in the fact of agreement rather than its contents – the teetering, dysfunctional devolved administration and the soon-to-be-slimmed down Assembly may now resume their work.

That itself is welcome and no small achievement, although, ironically, the working methods of the negotiation, particularly the monopolisation of discussion by Sinn Féin and the DUP, reflect some of the worst traits of that dysfunctionality .

It’s difficult not to be a bit cynical about the deal on welfare reform, the row which was one of the triggers for the latest breakdown. Anxious not to be put in a position where it has to endorse an Assembly vote to approve the reforms – otherwise known by its supporters as “cuts” – Sinn Féin has agreed to a formula which devolves the said vote back to Westminster, allowing the party to continue to claim clean hands on the issue and to blame the Tories.

With a bit of budget juggling the compensation package, which had been dismissed as too small, is also increased by a small amount and spread over a shorter period – the hole left in the Executive’s budgets that will inevitably have to be filled by further education and health “reform” measures is not adverted to.

The agreement to strengthen cross-border security co-operation is important and also welcome. The Garda, PSNI, Revenue Commissioners , British revenue commissioners, Criminal Assets Bureau, and the UK National Crime Agency will all work together on issues ranging from paramilitarism to trafficking and organised crime, particularly in the Border areas. Additional cash for this work will be coming from London including some millions to help bring down the “peace” walls in Belfast.

The disappointing failure to make progress on “legacy” issues has caused widespread anger among victims groups. It is being blamed largely on a British reluctance to sign up to legislation that would require it to release material it might wish to deem sensitive on national security grounds.

That is grist to the Sinn Féin mill at the moment, although the extent of the latter’s real commitment to complete openness about its own past activities has yet to be tested.

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