Amid all the sterile political sparring, the most significant development in the Assembly stand- off has been the one that has been almost totally ignored – the UK governments’ publication of a summary of measures which would form the basis of a Northern Ireland (Stormont House Agreement ) Bill to be included in the Queens Speech at the beginning of the Westminster session. With the addition of the paramilitary monitoring review , the summary confirms the obvious fact that the SHA agenda is the only show in town for ending the crisis .
The summary confirms the view that behind the scenes there has been progress already over an agreement on dealing with the past. Among the most significant statements:
On dealing with the past both national Parliaments will pass legislation to ensure the measures work effectively. This should be accompanied by constant monitoring of the arrangements by both governments As set out in the Agreement, the UK Government will make full disclosure to the new beefed up Historic Investigations Unit
Taken at face value the promise of full UK disclosure contained in the original SHA and repeated several times here, should draw some of the sting out of nationalist criticisms of government cover up over collusion and controversial killings – despite the right of the British government to prevent disclosure on national security grounds. If Sinn Fein wish to continue positioning as champions of disclosure, here is a strong incentive to cooperate.
On political reform, in addition to existing plans for an Opposition, it’s proposed to increase the period from 7 to 14 days for allocating ministers to departments. This is to allow time for the parties to agree on a meaningful Programme for Government rather than separate wish lists. This is pretty modest stuff but at least it’s a start.
Finally the government will introduce the SHA package including the £150 million to finance it only if the parties agree to end the standoff. Agreement on welfare reform seems no further forward and Westminster may still have to legislate to impose it unless the Executive parties cannot agree to some reallocation of priorities and levy water charges and increase the rates, even if delayed until after the Assembly elections scheduled for next May.
The task now is to get the venting over in the next couple of weeks before getting down to specifics. Will British funding and other pressure succeed in getting agreement on these familiar and in most cases modest reforms? Even the welfare and budgetary crisis should be manageable by accepting the UK governments welfare terms and reallocating £50 to £70 million from the local budget, according to economist John Simpson. And then (no doubt after the elections) the introduction of :
Annual phased “inflation plus 3%” increase in the regional domestic rate to begin to narrow the existing underfunding from households for rates.
A commitment to withdraw the remaining industrial de-rating arrangements partially to offset the cost of corporation tax relief to businesses.
Prescription charges at a fixed rate.
As a preliminary to an agreed water charging system, a fixed charge per household (levied as part of the domestic rates bill) of £100 each year.
Proposals like these would be a sensible start. Even these unpopular changes would leave households in Northern Ireland with lower household charges than already apply in other regions.
A comparison with the Republic might even convince Sinn Fein this is not a bad long term deal.
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