The star of wonder shines through the Christmas Agreement

In Northern Ireland God seems to work in mysterious ways  his wonders  to perform  at peak moments in the Christian calendar. Sixteen years after the Good Friday ( or Belfast ) Agreement, we have the Christmas ( or Stormont House) Agreement.

Behind the details the main features are:

  • Apparently genuine efforts by the parties to end deadlock by tackling it through a highly ambitious, comprehensive agenda . Against expectations, the dam seems to have broken.


  •  Regular monitoring of the conduct of the Executive and the Assembly by both governments will replace both recent years of neglect and earlier super-special treatment.


  • The introduction of lay participation and outsourcing of toxic problems   to head off potential political deadlock is imaginative. At the same time over flags and parades,  the deferment  shows the continuing difficulty of making agreements that work in the streets. There could be a Civic Forum but the statement is less than a commitment .Yet the lay involvement specified could help to build real impetus , if it means the politicians have recognised their limitations but cannot overcome them unaided (Here the record has been mixed. The Policing Board is a success; the Parades Commission ,not)
  • New impetus for a real cohesion sharing and integration is envisaged by attacking the marginal costs of sectarian division.


  • Real progress on parades an dealing with the past still depend on implementation.


  • Full funding from Westminster and the devolution of corporation tax depends on the implementation of the welfare reforms


  • The Assembly should be smaller by 2021 at a level to be agreed and the Executive membership reduced from 12 to 9 members in 20I6. Provision should be made for an effective Opposition. There is some procedural reform to ease blocking but the threshold for Petitions of Concern remains the same.  Designation blocs remain.



The total value of the Government’s package is additional spending power of almost £2 billion. So the final total approaches the level of Executive demands.  But only £650 million of it is new money, the rest is borrowing or asset sales. In one sense, it exempts Northern Ireland from the  timetable of the Chancellor’s  tightening deficit reductions strategy in the Autumn Statement . On other hand it’s a case of more jam today and less jam tomorrow.

There is  no welfare bonanza. More than half the marginal costs the Executive identified  and Sinn Fein had held out for will come from Executive reallocations, borrowing  and asset sales.

The government statement says bluntly: “The deduction from the block grant of £114m for 2015-16 remains due”. The fines will stay in place to be funded out of loans and asset sales ( such as  Belfast Harbour) and will reduced according go to how quickly they’re implemented. Following agreement of a balanced budget the Government will allow the £100m loan from the Treasury to be repaid from asset sales. This means that the Executive will have a further £100m of resource spending available in 2015-16. Each £100m of borrowing will cost between £3-4m a year in loan repayments, but will yield annual savings in excess of £50m. These are savings that could be used to deliver other priorities including investment in social outcomes projects


Whether Northern Ireland will manage to keep to the borrowing terms  remains to be seen. The government will keeps close tabs on progress through an agreed implementation plan and efficiency drives .  Intriguingly an independent strategic review of public sector reform conducted by the highly respected international Paris- based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development will report by the end of 2015. The OECD carried out a literacy and numeracy review of NI last year.

The governments conditions are clear: This financial package is subject to the Welfare Bill being reintroduced in January, progressing through Consideration Stage by the end of February, and full implementation of Executive led measures by 2016-17.


On  building an integrated  and sharing society, UK aims and involvement  are clearly stated.   A contribution of up to £500m over 10 years of new capital funding to support shared and integrated education subject to individual projects being agreed between the Executive and the Government. UK  involvement here is significant

There should be an independent audit of departmental spending to identify how divisions in society impact on the delivery of goods, facilities and services, and to then consider how best to reconfigure service delivery in a manner consistent with a shared future.


Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition

As in the headline document, the main questions are benign farmed  out  to outside commissions, whose memberships will include non-politicians.  Now here’s  a thing.  A Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition is to have two members each from the DUP and Sinn Fein, three others from minority parties. The remaining eight members of the Commission will be drawn from outside of government.  At least 5 politicians must agree on a proposal. This means neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein has a veto.

 Progress on  Parades will  depend  on implementation.  There appears nothing  new here to remove  Camp Twaddell quickly. A new code of  conduct will be drawn up  and emphasis placed on “encouraging and facilitating direct, meaningful and sustained local dialogue should be at the heart of any new regulatory system for parades and protests.”

 Responsibility for parades and related protests should, in principle, be devolved to the NI Assembly

Independent adjudication will remain a necessary part of the regulatory process, but should be a last resort.

This will be an acid test of the Assembly’s  cohesion and new-found  good intentions


On the Past the Agreement is a good deal sketchier than Haass. But a significant new element is confirmation that there will funded involvement by the Republic.


There is also encouragement for individuals and institutions ( no doubt Including Governments)  to admit to wrongdoing.


Cuts brought legacy investigations  to a halt this year.  The extent of  further inquiry will be defined by future funding which is a good deal more than last year’s HET budget but only half of what Gerry Adams called for. No doubt there will arguments aplenty over  the £30 million the UK  government is making available which as it freely admits, is less than the Executive wanted.

The Historical Investigations Unit  with full police powers  will attempt be more searching than the disbanded Historical Enquiries Team and amalgamates the legacy work of the Police ombudsman.

The Independent Commission on Information Retrieval (ICIR)   will be jointly appointed by the two governments in consultation with OFMDFM, together with two nominees appointed by the First and deputy First Minister.  It will enable victims and survivors to seek and privately receive information about the (Troubles related) deaths of their next of kin.

In the discussion around Haass the Implementation and Reconciliation Group (IRG)  was expected to be dominated by politicians. In fact, although nominated by the Stormont politicians and both governments, it will be politician-free. It will be established to oversee themes, archives and information recovery. After 5 years a report on themes will be commissioned by the IRG from independent academic experts.  ( We can do better than that.)

Both governments “endorse the need for respect for and recognition of the Irish language in Northern Ireland, consistent with the Council of Europe Charter on Regional or Minority Languages”.

A lot to digest to explain and implement.  And a lot to hope for, at last.



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  • Ernekid

    I feel that once these Christmas presents have their shiny wrapping torn off, most of us will realise that these gifts aren’t much. We haven’t got a PS4, we’ve got a pair of itchy socks.

    By the time the May elections roll on and the marching season kicks off, these agreements will have been long forgotten.

  • Shouldn’t it have been the Advent Agreement – particularly apt given the amount of waiting?!

  • Cue Bono

    Surely it would have to be the Winterfest Agreement?

  • kalista63

    4 blogs on the same topic. On which one is one supposed to comment. This isn’t an unsual issue on Slugger.

    An observation, not a criticism, save for in the correct meaning of the latter.

  • mickfealty

    That’s up to you Paul, I like this one best… [expect more, but remember we did spare you over complicated speculation beforehand].

    Think Brian’s point on the now close supervision is a useful one. #StomontTagged?

  • Emanonon

    Let’s all be honest Cameron and Villiers took out a big stick and threatened DUP/SF with direct rule if they didn’t do a deal. Neither could contemplate the loss of salaries and expenses which they need to run their parties.

    This is the first time they have faced reality and they backed down, unfortunately they weren’t faced down years ago.

  • Brian Walker

    Eamanon, Let’s all be honest, the last thing Cameron wants is a return
    to direct rule. Kalaista 3, lots of posts
    on the same topic? Like newspapers where you see more than one op ed on a major story we’re all paid lineage on Slugger for the big one dontcha know? Ernekid, you get the warning for the first drip of cynicism. The story may change. Financial terms may change with developments. But it won’t be forgotten, silly.

  • Emanonon

    I didn’t say he wanted it, but all he need them to believe was that he would do it. You know what he would have.

  • Zeno1

    “Apparently genuine efforts by the parties to end deadlock by tackling it through a highly ambitious, comprehensive agenda . Against expectations, the dam seems to have broken.”
    If you think that is what happened Brian, you don’t understand the game. “Crisis” followed by “Crisis” was wearing a bit thin. Now, even though nothing has been gained a brave face is being put on it. They are calling it “Progress”, and you know why that is? SF and the DUP were given a lesson by the Tories. They held a gun to their heads and they bowed down.

  • Ian James Parsley

    That’s exactly what happened. Well said.

  • Ian James Parsley

    I can’t be as optimistic as Brian and, given I had a big piece on money here a few weeks back, I’ll emphasise that issue as to why not.

    The £650m “new money” is no such thing really. It is £150m towards the new Commissions etc (which have a UK-wide remit to some extent anyway, so even there I think “new money” is pushing it) and then “up to £500m” for Shared Education projects where these are agreed with the UK Government.

    Then there’s £900m of re-allocation from Capital to be spent on redundancies and repayments, while only £350m is going into Capital… and even that is borrowed.

    For everything else, assets have to be sold – effectively again a borrowing against future generations who won’t be able to do likewise. Short of selling Stormont Estate…

  • Zeno1

    The DUP are Tories anyway, or at least like to believe they are, so no big deal to them. But I am looking forward to the Sinn Fein spin on this one. They are now working for David Cameron, cutting jobs and selling assets.
    Well played Cameron.

  • Gopher

    Lets be honest Belfast port to private enterprise (no problem) The under counter deals on opening hours (no problem) and planning (no problem) HMG gets her tax (no problem) Cant agree to give up on the sham fight ( weak as piss) I have never seen such an obvious a deal as brokered to save politicians salaries. Alliance UUP and SDLP are a Joke. There is no deal just an understanding to keep the DUP and SF in power. Here is one for the clinically thick, in 2021 apparently Stormont will decrease its MLA’s in other words its over there is no North of Ireland. When is there going to be a Thirty Two county Ireland 2022? Dont make me laugh. The flag and Parades Quango (read overpaid jobs for the boys) can report on the pantomime as much as it wants, its as clear as the nose on your face there is just Northern Ireland now. But over 50% at the next election know that anyway. The War is well and truly over so stop boring us!

  • Robin Keogh

    So the whole show simply stays on life support, i can live with that

  • Bryan Magee

    I am impressed by the deal.

    In particular the institutional reform which

    *allows for oppositon structures at long last, and I can see parties like UUP or SDLP taking these up.
    *reduces number of MLAs to a sensible number at long last
    *raises threshold for petition of concern from 27% of members to 33%; in effect now if 2/3rds of MLAs are in favour of something, it will happen regardless of designation . That makes government less prone to blocking from a single party.
    *reduces the number of ministers to a more sensible number.

    These are issues that agreement had been thought unlikely on – and which should make government work better.

    I also think that its *not* stupid to sell some government assets; in particular some departments own a lot of land that would be more effectively used in the private sector.

    The Corporation Tax power has the potential to make investment in NI more attractive, as the DETINI panel of economic experts concluded a couple of years ago.

    On the Past, there has now been an agreement on most of Haass. This is quite a large area which had been difficult.

    On parades and flags – these are not actually strategically important issues and its not so key.

    Overall I think the politicians do deserve credit for this major step forward.

  • chrisjones2

    I have to say I think you are naiive on this Brian

    There are positives but its just an excuse for another round of political negotiation spun out over 2 years. When those cheques fall to be cashed he Shinners hope for a benign LAbour Government while the DUPS hope to hold the balance of power in Westminster

  • chrisjones2

    Nonsense. The DUP are far to the right of the Tories and the KIPPERS

  • chrisjones2

    I agree. But they needed to tie the release of cash more tightly to performance – though there are good bits

  • Bryan Magee

    I also saw the hand of the Treasury in a NI deal for the first time. This has their “hallmark” shall we say!

    I also liked that the two governments are putting pressure for more efforts at integration – that’s something David Cameron put in, I think. He feels there is a need for the local parties to have external pressure to do more for integrated education. I agree with Brian that this is significant.

  • chrisjones2

    …except by the Treasury

  • Brian Walker

    Ian Parsley,

    Don’t despair! Firstly, real engagement by Whitehall can only
    be a good thing. I should have thought that would be welcome to you particularly if they’re serious about tackling the marginal costs of sectarianism. A more united Executive on key issues is essential. Otherwise indirect rule will increase. The whole budgetary and policy making process is set to become more transparent and accountable. The agreement envisages close monitoring by Whitehall over the whole package. Monitoring and service agreements are a two way street. A united Executive can negotiate for changing circumstances within a much closer system of devolution co-ordination that’s likely to emerge.

    2. Borrowing costs will never be lower and the details are
    not set in stone. Even three year projections can be altered by circumstances.

    3. As you know what is capital and revue in the public sector can be fairly arbitrary. School buildings are capital while teachers are not, that sort of thing. New flexibility is at least useful. It means you’re forced to set priorities rather than salami slice in silos (pardon the clash of images). Stormont has never been good at handling this.

    4. The whole Barnett issue through the UK is becoming an explosive
    issue and not obviously in NI’s favour , I agree. But if needs criteria are stressed NI might not come out too badly

    5. A Labour-led government might be a mite more generous!.

    6. I wouldn’t touch corporation tax with a bargepole.

    Finally.,. but yes, cuts are cuts..

  • chrisjones2

    Otherwise indirect rule will increase. – and is that a bad thing?

    As you know what is capital and revue in the public sector can be fairly arbitrary – i don’t think thats true – its actually quite rigid

    if needs criteria are stressed – noone willgive a stuiff forour self imposed needs.Its a politicalissue

  • Dan

    Watch the DUP get a dose of the jitters as they realise they are on their own with this deal………they are out there exposed. When the OO realise they are left without a solution to their parading problem, the DUP leadership will be in trouble.

  • Morpheus

    The OO is a tiny fraction of the NI population, less than 2% – so what?

  • Comrade Stalin

    You’re easily impressed, Brian. There’s very little content in the document.

    And you seem to be confused. A greater proportion of MLAs must now favour something in order to pass, as the Petition of Concern threshold has been left at 30 MLAs. This is a worse situation, it makes it even harder to pass measures that might otherwise have succeeded.

    The DUP are retaining their permanent veto, and there are no provisions to reduce abuse of the Petition – for example, when the DUP abused it in order to block the assembly from censuring their Ministers. There is a paragraph in there about a “protocol being agreed between the parties” to reform the system, but I will bet you money right now that no protocol will ever be agreed.

    Selling off Belfast Port on the cheap is the worst possible decision. I’ve no problem bringing in the private sector to see if there are ways they can better exploit existing resources. But selling off the whole thing, and losing the £27m/year annual profit that it generates, is insane. It is being sold because the Executive don’t want to ask the current generation to pay more tax towards the running of the country – they want a future generation to pay for it instead.

    On parades and flags – these are not actually strategically important issues and its not so key.

    Okay. Clearly you and I are not on the same planet.

  • Redstar

    Maybe but as you well know they have an influence far greater than that.

    Their representation amongst leadership of the main two unionist parties far exceeds 2%.

    Let’s face it neither Uup of Dup would ever face them down

  • Morpheus

    What would the OO do? Form another party? They would be in for one hell if a shock

  • Redstar

    Why would they need to form a new party when they already run both the Uup and Dup?

  • Bryan Magee

    On the petition of concern are you sure its worse?

  • Bryan Magee

    The petition of comcen threshold has surely increased , as a % of mlas, making it less likely a single party can garner needed number of sigs?

  • tmitch57

    To be really meaningful any agreement would have to do two sets of things. The first would be a major structural reform of the GFA machinery: an official opposition supported by funding, etc., reduction of the number of MLAs, and movement away from ethnic vetoes to supermajorities. The second set of reforms would be the ad hoc issue reforms on such things as welfare spending, the past, parades, and flags. The agreement dealt with about half of the ad hoc issues and not in any fundamental fashion with the structural ones. The parties that negotiated the major Strand One issues of the GFA (SDLP, UUP) are now less important and those that didn’t participate (DUP) or were marginal (SF) are now running Stormont. Thus they have no buy-in to a system that they inherited. But something is better than nothing. Although this reminds me of the period between 1999 and 2002 when the Shinners and the Ulster Unionists played chicken. At least in the DUP they’ve inherited the experience of that from Donaldson, Foster and Weir.

  • chrisjones2

    If you had ever met the OO leadership the thought of them running anything is risible. THe weemin do all the organisin while, even after 300 years practice, they cant even get a parade from a to b sober, in good order and on time

  • Nimn

    The close monitoring and conditional nature of the SHA, as well as the limited amount of new money, mainly for legacy issues is thinly veiled Direct Rule (or Joint Authority) by the back door. – I’m not complaining. The SHA is an easy read, quickly published and available to all. Our politicians can’t spin it. They have been faced down and made to look like the fools they are.
    The Robinson/Hamilton run to George Osborne for the £100m to stave off the ultimate humiliation of Civil Servants running the country’s finances handed back control of Stormont to the Treasury and Whitehall, without the messy move to Direct Rule.
    Corportation Tax, that brass plated bullet will only commence in 2017 if the Executive can demonstrate that “its finances are on a sustainable footing for the
    long term including successfully implementing measures in this agreement and
    subsequent reform measures.” – note the last three words – all underpinned by an implementation plan. Effectively the Government is saying ‘do as you are told or you are getting nothing’

    Underpinning this ‘deal’ is an agreed budget for 2015/2016 with £870m of cuts and over £700m of reprioritised spending. The ability to borrow more money on the never never, or raiding capital budgets for revenue purposes isn’t going to change this. Worse still, (in my view) mainly as a result of our fiefdom approach to Government, which has nothing to do with collective responsibility and everything to do with political hubris and dogma – these cuts are coming from services which are already seriously mis-managed and underfunded. There is a feeling that the general societal infrastructure in NI is slowly winding down and there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it.