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.
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