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.
So 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