Well, perhaps amid the encircling gloom the political parties have seen some light at last. The details of the agreement on welfare reform are awaited but it looks as if any new money will come from Westminster mainly to deal with the past which is surely fair.
Adds: United Executive request for a total of £2.1 billion over 10 years. Quite a gap with David Cameron’s £1 billion extra borrowing.. but perhaps smoke and mirrors will narrow it once the welfare deal surfaces.
Nothing from that congested agenda so far on Assembly reform. if Sinn Fein really has blinked first, let’s not gloat. Early reports suggest that a real effort is being made to bring new life into the Agreement institutions, maybe even a fresh start. Maybe too extravagant a claim? Let’s see.
The BBC’s Stephen Walker has supplied a summary of the agreement on the Past. Experts on the detail will draw out differences, but at first blush this is Haas a year late if it’s confirmed. We wait to hear what broke the deadlock over parades, while agreement on the past had surprisingly enough seemed likely for some time.
Main reflections ..
Reformers will note that agreement has been reached by outsourcing most of the implementation to a battery of bodies in which politicians are in a minority. It’s not immediately clear to me whether this applies to the supervising Implementation Group but at least it will have lay leadership rather like the Policing Board. The injection of a strong element of “civil society “ the great and good who have kept Northern Ireland going through the Troubles and the “peace process,” may be dubbed elitist, but it’s also an acknowledgment that politics and society need greater non- party involvement and that anything like a shared society rather than a carve up cannot be achieved by the political system alone. This is a bold, even generous admission from the political class if I’m right. At long last and very late in the day victims have a better chance of closure.
It will be quite a challenge for such elaborate bureaucratic machinery to move quickly, not to mention cheaply, but the setting of timetables is a promising start after decades of delay. Apart from sticking to fairly tight timetables, the scale of funding will be important. It’s fair to suggest that this should come from mainly form the British government. The full extent of Whitehall’s cooperation remains to be revealed. It should at least match that of the local parties.
The Irish government should conduct a complementary preferably even an integrated examination of the past.
On the effectiveness of the new bodies, much will also depend on the degree of criminal justice involvement. The less it is, the more disclosure is possible. While all are set against formal amnesty the time has come to act on the unfeasibility of prosecutions. And the old question remains: can omerta be broken?
The timetables also imply that the opportunities for political stalling are limited. Much will also depend on whether a real breakthrough in attitudes accompanies the new adjudication body in parades. Without that , a body comprised of angels and saints chaired by St Peter would make little difference.
Detail of at least nine new public bodies
A Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition Commission.
It would take 18 months to report and would consist of 15 members, with seven being appointed by the Executive parties
On the controversial issue of parading, a number of new bodies are proposed including the establishment of the Office for Parades and Related Protests. This would examine mainly non-contentious parades and protests and would have an administrative function.
The Public Events Adjudication Authority, would regulate parades and it would be established through legislation in the Assembly.
With relation to the past, a series of new bodies have been suggested. These ideas were first mooted during inter-party discussions in 2013 chaired by the former US diplomat Richard Haass.
An Oral History Archive which would provide an arena for people to share their experiences of the Troubles. The archive would be independent and free from political interference.
As part of the archive, a research project would be established to produce a timeline and analysis of the Troubles. It would report within 12 months.
Legislation is also planned to introduce a Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) which would examine deaths relating to the Troubles.
It would take on outstanding work from the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) and the legacy work of the Police Ombudsman.
This new body will have full policing powers, and the document states the “HIU should aim to complete its work within five years of its establishment”. This suggests less than a comprehensive trawl through the whole of the HET’s record.
The British government says it would “make disclosure to the chairperson”, but says measures may need to be taken that will not put individuals at risk or “damage national security”.
However, the document presented to the local parties states that “no individual who provides information to the body will be immune from prosecution for any crime committed should the required evidential test be satisfied by other means.
Another body that would examine the past is a new Independent Commission on Information Retrieval. Known as ICIR, it will be led by four members and would exist to help victims and survivors who want to seek and receive information about the death of their next of kin.
ICIR would not disclose information it receives to law enforcement or intelligence agencies.
The body overseeing the whole process will be the Implementation and Reconciliation Group
Chaired by an outside eminence, membership will consist of a member each of the 5 Executive parties and an unstated number of laity
” Anew engagement model could help deliver this goal”.
The paper presented to the executive parties also states that “it is important that civic voices are heard and civic views are considered in relation to key social, cultural and economic issues”.
The paper states that a “new engagement model could help deliver this goal”.
This could mean the establishment of a new Civic Forum by June 2015 .
The document also details that an Equality and Good Relations Commission would be established that could provide the secretariat to the civic advisory panel.
A new north-south body has also been proposed, which would bring together representatives from civic society.
This forum would have joint chairs appointed by the executive and the Irish government.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London