A Fresh Start

Today the Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers and the Foreign Minister, Charlie Flanagan, along with the First and Deputy First Minister announced a new deal on devolution, welfare reform and paramilitarism. The document is 67 pages long and took around 10 weeks to negotiate. Here is a short round up of the Stormont House Agreement.

The new agreement contains;

  1. Gives the Executive additional UK government financial support of £500 million to assist the Executive in tackling issues unique to Northern Ireland, including support for removal of peace walls. This is over a four year period. (This does not include new borrowing powers, but maintains what was agreed last year).
  2. Corporation Tax devolved by April 2018 (originally supposed to be April 2017).
  3. Allow measures to address the issues of flags and parades to go ahead (Advisory panel agreed at Stormont House last year to go ahead).
  4. Introduce institutional changes to make devolution work better (size of the Assembly, number of departments. use of petition of concern and provision for an official opposition).
  5. Paramilitary activity- Fresh obligations on Northern Ireland representatives to work together on their shared objective of ridding society of all forms of paramilitary activity.
  6. Concerted and enhanced effort to combat cross border crimes (This starts with a tripartite meeting in December to start the process of cooperation between Gardai and PSNI).

Some side notes;

The Irish government has committed 119 million Euros up to 2019 to develop the North-West region. 75 million of which will go towards building the A5.

On the fines over failure to implement Welfare Reforms, they end tomorrow with the passage of legislative consent motion. Plus a pledge that no fines will be implemented in the next financial year.

There is no agreement on legacy issues, but the Secretary of State committed to continue working to find an agreement.

There is agreement on the entitlements for an official opposition (page 55) which will be done through amendment of standing order, rather than primary legislation. Presumably this kills McCallister’s Opposition Bill.

Reaction from parties;

David Ford from Alliance;

Alliance proposed an adjournment until next week, to allow proper scrutiny of what should be major government decisions that have potentially deep, long-term implications.

Unfortunately, other parties would not agree and insisted on steamrollering this process through. We refuse to sign the people of Northern Ireland up for a future which hasn’t been thought through.

While we cannot fully endorse all of this deal today, Alliance will play a full and responsible role to implement the parts that make sense for the good of society, and hold others to account on their commitments.

Martin McGuinness from Sinn Fein;

We have secured more than half a billion pounds of additional funding for the Executive plus flexibilities that can be invested in growth and public services.

We are providing a package of £585 million to support the most vulnerable in our society and low-income working families.

 We have appointed a panel under the leadership of Professor Eileen Evason to draft proposals on how this money will provide essential support to people on welfare and thousands of families targeted by Tory cuts to tax credits.

 We will continue to do all we can to support those in need.

 The legacy of the past remains a huge gap in this work. The onus remains on the British government to live up to their responsibilities to victims, in particular full disclosure.

 We also addressed directly the issue of paramilitarism. There can be no place for armed groups in our society. That is why the agreement includes additional resources for policing and mechanisms to challenge armed gangs and criminality.

 Our political institutions are the best way forward. The First Minister and I are absolutely united on this.

The First Minister said;

Undoubtedly at the heart of this agreement is a desire to build a better Northern Ireland for all our citizens.  We set out further steps to develop our economy, support those most vulnerable, assist working people and build on the political progress to date.  The decision to reduce our Corporation Tax rate from April 2018 to 12.5% will we believe act as a game changer in our efforts to grow the Northern Ireland economy.  The additional half billion financial package will allow us to protect front-line services ensuring we become efficient in how we deliver for the public.

Our agreement contains details of the steps we will take as an Executive, as well as those to be taken by the UK Government, on welfare reform and sets out measures to support those working people who may suffer from a reduction in tax credits.  The UK Government will pass a Northern Ireland Welfare Bill at Westminster following a debate in the Assembly tomorrow.

The Executive will provide £345 million for welfare top-ups and £240 million for tax credit support over the next four years.  We have asked Professor Eileen Evason to lead a small working group to bring forward proposals and the Executive will implement the findings of the group.  In my view this represents a sensible way forward and will ensure we have both a fair and affordable welfare system while recognising the need to help those who are also in work.

Today represents another milestone along the way as we normalise and build our society.  The agreements and plans we set out represent our desire to overcome the difficulties of the last number of years.   We must ensure that through co-operation and common purpose the spirit, vision and promise of the document is fulfilled.

Full audio of the press conference is here.

David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs