“Fresh Start” shows that ‘deals’ can be painful, yes. But impossible, certainly not.

The DUP and SF have swallowed hard and been humiliated in this deal, proving that their top priority is the survival of devolution. So that’s good.

– Malachi O’Doherty

So it’s reverse ferrets all round, again. Whilst in the south Universal Health Insurance (the Dutch model to you and I) is being surreptitiously dropped, in the north Sinn Fein have finally come to an agreement they had privately agreed over two years ago.

And yet, and yet, there is something to be celebrated (preferably with a mug of strong sugarless black tea rather than wasting the good champagne) in the fact that finally the DUP and Sinn Fein have shown they can co-operate and signal a deal. Painful, yes. Impossible, certainly not.

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 10.20.13So long as we don’t look too closely at the detail, there’s a neat wee split here. The DUP are going large on the amelioration package to take the sting out of the cuts in working tax credits, when they eventually arrive.

For their part Sinn Fein now have an internal package which will (albeit at the expense of other ministerial departments) make up any shortfall in Welfare cuts. That’s a decent coup for them and is surely enough to shield them from too many awkward conversations at the base.

It demonstrates that (in contradistinction to most of the misleading PR running up to this deal) that these two can co-operate, albeit only when it gets to the very last minute, with a fiscal gun to the head and by handing responsibility for legislating the deal to the Westminster parliament.

The time wasted is the real cost here, not the deal itself (the parameters for which have not and would not have changed for anyone else). It also demonstrates that if you make the negotiation between two parties who in any case share then you end up operating in the absence of any real strategic framework.

And as a result bilateral negotiations tends to focus on measures which in reality deliver a long series of nothings.

For example, take this huge borrowing commitment to pay for redundancy packages for 20,000 civil servants? In the absence of detail we can only speculate. But if the early retirement of former RUC officers is a precedent suggests that a feather bedding exercise far above the statutory requirement is being planned.

The significance of the Pengelly pay off (missed by most of the press at the time) was not that it was particular, but that such measures are likely to be the general case. The danger is not collapse of Stormont so much that it becomes a purely self sustaining organism incapable of acting on external needs.

In reality, Phase 1 of the A5 (from New Buildings to just outside Strabane) is being bought at the expense of the Narrow Water Bridge: a much more modest project which nonetheless would span the border and conjoin two areas of outstanding natural beauty.

In contrast with the original proposal in 2008 when the then Fianna Fail pledged a staggering £400 million for the project, it’s possible this stretch has been chosen (over the much more economically important Ballygawley-Omagh section) because that’s all the £75 million will cover.

A completed A5 (from Monaghan northwards) would eventually bring economic benefits, but probably fewer and much much later than an upgraded A6 which would help speed up economic and commercial links from Derry, Donegal and the North West to Belfast, Larne and Dublin.

What’s really needed are smaller short term actions (which fit available budgets in London and Dublin) that build towards longer term prosperity for all the people of Northern Ireland: ie, not just Greater Belfast which attracts the largest part of foreign interest and inward investment.

Those parties thinking about making hay on the poorness of the settlement should think again. The real weakness here is the sheer lack of ideas for building the long term health of the long term economy. And that present positions are being protected at the expense of future jobs.

What we highlighted to Unionists in 2003 in the Long Peace still holds today for all ambitious political parties:

Existing jobs must be lost in order to create more productive ones in new industries. Old ideas must be challenged by the ideas of a rising generation. How committed they are to renewal. Do they wish to fight the old battles? Or the new ones?

This is the core challenge going forward. Small changes over time can shift the future a very long way. The trouble is that it takes courage, vision and enormous patience to effect even such small changes.

For now, just agreeing to set a budget may be small change enough.

 ‘In strategy it is important to see distant things as if they were close and to take a distanced view of close things.’

– Miyamoto Musashi

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

  • Kevin Breslin

    “It also demonstrates that if you make the negotiation between two parties who in any case share then you end up operating in the absence of any real strategic framework.”

    You are going to help me out here, are you saying sharing cannot be strategic?

    Have you ever heard of the Nash-Equillibrium non-competitive game strategy … I believe there was a movie out about it?

    It actually showed greater pay-offs than several winner take all strategies.

    And is there any evidence which parties are responsible for the mitigation suggestion, and which for the amelioration package. The public aren’t exactly privy to all the information here, and the media is completely useless in disclosing the information.

  • mickfealty

    To your first, no. I’m saying the opposite. And no, I haven’t heard of the Nash Equilibrium. But I would love to hear more.

  • Kevin Breslin

    “If each player has chosen a strategy and no player can benefit by changing strategies while the other players keep theirs unchanged, then the current set of strategy choices and the corresponding payoffs constitutes a Nash equilibrium”

    Negotiations focus upon the strategy of co-ordination of strategies rather than competing ones. So it’s basically a case of the DUP and SF reforging a damaged coalition within the coalition and then cutting a united strategy with the governments.

  • mickfealty

    Try Chapter Three: “Facing the Dilemma” here: http://goo.gl/MSZEK

    Mapping Northern Ireland’s politics onto the Prisoner’s Dilemma is straightforward. The big prize for
    unionists is the unqualified and unchallenged maintenance of
    the Union; for nationalists, the chance to move unchallenged to a similarly unqualified united Ireland.

    But these outcomes are mutually exclusive and can be achieved only if one side pursues its goal ruthlessly while the other acquiesces totally, receiving only the sucker’s payoff. When both sides pursue their objective without regard for the other, stalemate ensues and both sides suffer.

    Cooperation may seem a good idea to outsiders, but is harder to achieve when actually playing the game. Each side is anxious about being exploited if the other seems strong, and faces the temptation to take unilateral advantage if the other seems weak.

    Bearing in mind we published this back in May 2003, I’d say it’s a fairly durable insight.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Democracy is always about achieving sub-optimal goals.

    What you are suggesting in the second paragraph is a dichotomy between imposing ruthless goals or suffering a compromise. We’ve had the ruthless Orange State, We’ve have the ruthless Green State, is this really the optimal outcome to go back fifty years?

    Ruthless winning can be as painful as Compromising.

    You speak of stalemate as if the game is over, and checkmate stops the games forever. As all chess was is its result.

  • Gopher

    Trying to make sense of the new rules sorry “protocols” on Petitions of concern. Are budgets or Same sex marriage still allowed to be petitioned?

  • NMS

    I am intrigued at all this talk about the A5, the Northern Ireland extension of Ireland’s N2. Other than making it easier to get to and from the Brandywell or let Tyrone supporters make an occasional trip to Dublin does it have any purpose? When/if Casement Park is ever redeveloped, trips to Clones will I assume be fewer for UK teams participating in the Ulster championship. Maybe someone can explain why so much money is being spent on such a minor road.

  • kensei

    There exists no world where democratic parties will prioritise existing jobs below magic new future ones. I’m not sure that’s wrong either.

    New industries get clout by being successful and having a political case to challenge old industries.

  • aquifer

    Setting an indicative timetable of April 2018 for 12.5% corporation tax is no small thing, and could bring lots of investment, though it is conditional on the Assembly agreeing ‘sustainable’ budgets. An investor would want more assurance on delivery though, if it is to be an effective carrot and create new jobs. The Executive may need to provide some sort of guarantee or state budget limit so that investors believe it will happen close to the date. Some slippage might be OK, as investors also do slippage in their project planning, but if over time it looks like Sinn Fein will string it out like decommissioning, the private money and jobs will not arrive. An independent corporation tax decommissioning commision to report on progress and the likelyhood of a reduction might actually make sense, in the same way as the UK gets its borrowing really cheap because of the Bank of England monetary committee’s role.

  • This is the third time round for this ‘deal’. No-one doubted a ‘deal’ could be concluded (whether it lasts has been the issue). While SF putting a good face on this, not clear they’ve actually understood the numbers (or simply don’t want to). That was the problem last time round too. Perhaps the speed on getting the Consent Motion was to ensure no-one looks to closely and the news moves on….

    Honestly don’t get what point being made above, if there is one. Not sure where there’s a conclusion or something, some insight, meant to be revealed. This deal spares blushes, keeps the gravy train on the tracks, and that’s it.

  • Surveyor

    To counter the spending that Belfast has had lavished on it over the years perhaps? The recently built £5.5 million Lagan footbridge being a case in point.

  • murdockp

    New industries get clout by locating in counries that will propel them forward.

    NI is not this. We are full to the gills of can’t do that civil servants.

  • Greenflag 2

    The parties in NI can’t win – they can’t lose=and they can’t get out of the game . As long as they continue to play on the same pitch with the same ball in the same twilight zone its deja vu now and again and again and now as well as over and over . .

    Not sure if ‘ruthless ‘ is the word to use . A failed Orange State could apply for much of the history of NI apart from a brief post WW2 period . But where is the ‘ruthless ‘ Green State ? I can’t see it .

  • Kevin Breslin

    The IRA Army Council claimed to be a State of its own.

  • Greenflag 2

    I interpret democracy to mean that non elected entities , organisations cannot claim to be a State unless they have the support of a majority of the people expressed in a free and fair election . So I did’nt recognise that Green State but thanks for the clarification .

  • Kevin Breslin

    Well certainly the Republic was considered a cold house among unionist at best.

  • Greenflag 2

    The answer is central heating not fire bombing or Darwinian adaptation in a geological time frame ;). Global warming could be the answer unless it paradoxically sets off another Ice Age in which case both Ireland’s may have to freeze together on the edge of the Dingle peninsula .

  • Sergiogiorgio

    A complete exercise in bollix whatever way you cut it. Bring on the revolution.