Oireachtas Live: Statements on Fresh Start and other NI issues…

Given Osborne’s climb down on Universal Tax rate most of the ‘new money’ trumpeted last week has disappeared like snow off ditch… Feel free to bring popcorn… Taniste speaking now…

From yesterday’s debate from Kildare Street, most notable was this from Ruth Coppinger:

…the agreement signed in Stormont is called A Fresh Start: The Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan but it is not a fresh start for the ordinary people of Northern Ireland. It is a continuation of the sectarian politics that has dominated the North for decades and it is also an acceleration of austerity in the North. This merits much discussion and examination for people in the South as well.

For example, it is bad news for working class people as the agreement would implement austerity and a range of cuts in welfare and other departments by the two big parties. It is also a shifting of the economy more towards profit of multinationals, with a massive cut in corporation tax that has been argued for by the Northern Ireland Assembly. I make these points for the Taoiseach’s comment.

With regard to the resignation of Mr. Peter Robinson, he is an example of the type of politician who has been part of the problem in Northern Ireland and not the solution. He is somebody who has blocked marriage equality most recently, and social progress, colluding with other parties to prevent, for example, women having the right to control their bodies, as the Abortion Act 1967 was not extended to the North. He stoked up sectarianism not long ago: the flags issue was quite recent and well documented. Other key parties have space in one community and politics has been reduced to a sectarian head count. That is still the case.

It is a credit to ordinary working class people, both Catholic and Protestant, that they will not allow the region to go back to the Troubles of the past. It is worth noting that the trade union movement is still probably the only organisation where Catholic and Protestant people organise together.

I raise the warning that although the Troubles are gone, unfortunately sectarianism has not gone away and there has been an increase in the separation between the two communities. That is well documented if one visits the North. We need a new generation of political representatives who will build unity among ordinary people rather than sowing or fomenting division.

The other key element of the Stormont agreement is the massive austerity programme that has been accepted by the parties in the North to be implemented in conjunction with the slashing of corporation tax. This austerity agreement represents a turning point because lines have been crossed, including by Sinn Féin. The party stated it would not cross those lines and that core payments in social welfare would be protected. It is a warning to those placing hopes in Sinn Féin in the South for the next election.

Let us call these cuts what they are; we cannot just call them “reforms” when it suits. The welfare cuts that have been agreed for implementation will mean an estimated 20,000 job cuts in the public sector. It also means benefits will be cut and day centres etc. will close. The cut in corporation tax equates to another massive hand-out to big business while ordinary people experience cuts in their living standards.

That is the reality of the agreement. The cushion money being touted of £585 million over four years also has to cushion the effect of tax credits, defence and other areas, so it is not solely to protect people suffering welfare cuts. The money will last for four years but with the last agreement it was to last for six years.

There is less money in this agreement to bulwark against austerity than there was in the previous agreement. Northern Ireland workers will also lose £110 million from tax credits being introduced.

For a very different perspective, the local NI Tories have just released their statement this afternoon…

It’s ironic that the latest talks process ended with republican tantrums over Conservative government policy and waffle about national security considerations overriding the interests of victims. We shouldn’t forget that the latest crisis at Stormont was caused by the continued existence of the IRA and its links to Sinn Fein.

The party has actually gone back on previous commitments to deal with the past, as institutions designed to investigate incidents from the Troubles have been delayed indefinitely, thanks to the negotiations. Sinn Fein’s refusal to take responsibility for the terror its movement caused or to accept a balanced approach to the legacy of violence, remains the single biggest obstacle to moving our society forward.

The most significant new parts of a Fresh Start impose new obligations on MLAs to work to disband paramilitaries and provide significant extra resources to tackle paramilitary crime.

The focus of the talks also centred on political differences between unionists and republicans, and a lack of delivery from Stormont. The Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, showed incredible patience, tenacity and ingenuity, coaxing the parties into developing a plan to deliver on promises they’d made almost 12 months ago.

Implementing a fairer welfare system, which protects vulnerable people, combats benefits dependency and helps more people into work, was central to the Stormont Agreement and we’re now seeing some rapid movement, after the Executive proved completely incapable of passing reforms without help. The Conservative government has again stuck to its principles, while showing flexibility and taking Northern Ireland’s special circumstances into account.

This new deal helps to shove failing, inept Stormont parties a little further along the road of taking responsibility for our governance. It provides a timetabled plan to cut Corporation Tax, which has the potential to transform Northern Ireland’s economy and create thousands of new jobs. It will encourage new companies to set up here and allow existing businesses to invest more money into our communities.

Ultimately though, the success or otherwise of a Fresh Start rests upon the Executive’s willingness to make decisions and deliver on its commitments. An endless series of crises and one set of talks after another isn’t a sustainable model for devolved government. The new document has some positive points, but it also skates over some disagreements or puts off dealing with them to a later date.

And here’s Micheal Martin’s speech from today…

11 months ago the Stormont House Agreement was agreed by the governments and some of the parties in Northern Ireland. It provided a basis for preventing the imminent collapse of the Executive and Assembly and it was presented as a decisive move forward.

What it did not represent was a decisive move away from the behaviour which caused that crisis in the first place. The main players carried on as before and lurched into the inevitable impasse of recent months.

This new Agreement is welcome because it removes the immediate threat of long-term collapse of democratic institutions established as the result of the overwhelming support of the people of this island. It provides a fresh start only in terms of the implementation of the last deal. It does not provide a fresh start or anything close to it for the people of Northern Ireland. The core dysfunction of recent years is not addressed in this agreement.

Unless this is challenged – unless the parties start working together and the governments reengage, the destructive cycle of crises will continue and the people of Northern Ireland will be the biggest losers.

One element which is new in the Agreement is the commitment to focus on addressing paramilitarism in Northern Ireland.

The cult of the ‘big man’ who can enforce silence and discipline is a curse which has held back communities which want to unite to build a shared peace and prosperity. The extra resources and procedures for monitoring and challenging paramilitarism and cross-border gangsterism are very welcome.

Only a few weeks ago some elements here were denying there was any problem. They were claiming that anyone who expressed concern was playing politics. Today they are promoting a deal which recognises the sinister remnants of groups which have brought nothing but misery to this island for far too long.

We strongly support the new commitment to disrupt their network and show that no one is untouchable.

We are very surprised that the Agreement does not give explicit parity to the threat posed by Loyalist paramilitarism. As has been seen too often, and particularly on the streets of Belfast, this sinister element remains and must also be tackled with the same force as Provisional and dissident paramilitarism.

It is a major failing of the Agreement that it fails to address the right of families to know who was responsible for the deaths of their loved ones.

The British government remains in clear breach of its commitments in the Weston Park Agreement to allow the open and independent investigation of crimes such as the murder of Pat Finucane which may trace to collusion by British forces.

Equally, the Provisional movement has continued to deny basic justice and closure to many of its victims, including cases of abuse and murder which happened well after the ceasefires and the Good Friday Agreement.

So far the Irish government is the only party to this issue which has fulfilled its commitment to transparency about the past. Allegations of Garda collusion were subject to rigorous independent investigation and the policy has been that the truth must be allowed to emerge no matter how uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, the British Government and Sinn Fein have stood in the way of dealing with the past in order to protect their own interests. Each continues to focus on the victims of others and does the absolute minimum on anything involving their side.

We share the outrage of victims groups about how this issue has been brushed aside. At a minimum they are entitled to see the proposals tabled by the parties to this Agreement so that we can all see how serious these negotiations actually were. The cover-up must stop.

The continued failure to agree the Bill of Rights and Act as well as the full restoration of the Civic Forum is a disgrace and each represents a breach of an Agreement supported by an overwhelming majority of the Irish people in a free referendum.

Clearly Deputy Adams’ description of the equality agenda as the “Trojan Horse” of the Provisional movement has caused damage, but equality measures are not an option for those who participate in the Northern Institutions they are a requirement.

It is at best unfortunate that the governments did not insist on tougher measures to secure their implementation.

The Agreement does contain a fig leaf concerning the Civic Forum by providing for a Civic Advisory Panel. The detail reveals this too is utterly devoid of substance.

Its members will be nominated by the DUP and Sinn Fein, it will represent only a few elements of civic society and, most incredibly, it will be allowed to discuss no more than two issues a year each of which will be cleared in advance by the DUP and Sinn Fein.

The Civic Forum was kept in suspension because when the DUP and Sinn Fein took control of the Executive they wanted to limit alternative voices. In tandem with the limiting of access to information for other parties in the Executive they said that the Civic Forum was not needed because the First and Deputy First Ministers would be available to civic society.

It has taken some remarkable neck for Sinn Fein to suddenly start calling for the restoration of the Forum when they refused to restore it and have now agreed a meaningless and politically compliant replacement.

The financial measures included in the Agreement have received a lot of attention in the past week. Many claims have been made about what they amount to but the only thing which is clear is that there has not been a commitment to major new funding for Northern Ireland.

Through the concentration of what was a six year programme into four year, unidentified savings and an amount of wishful thinking there has been quite a bit of hype from the parties about the outcome.

Before any of this can be trusted let’s see the detail. The claims made last year about mitigating welfare cuts turned out to be false, there is no reason to believe that this time will be different.

The fact that much of the welfare mitigation will come directly from funding for other public services is of real concern.

So too is the fact that €125 million will be available only if it appears through a clampdown on welfare fraud which is unlikely to secure anything close to that figure.

In this Agreement Sinn Fein decided to hand power to London in order to avoid having to vote for measures they were enabling. This is a profound confirmation that it puts party interests before the ideology it claims to be the sole representative of on this island.

The handing of power back to London was enforced by Sinn Fein and the DUP with an aggressive manoeuvre in the Assembly. The material was published three minutes before the debate and standard scrutiny procedures were suspended.

This puts even our own debate-averse government in shade when it comes to marginalising democratic assemblies.

Whatever about the politics what really matters is that the Agreement entrenches a deeply damage approach to public services and social protection in Northern Ireland.

Everyone now agrees that Northern Ireland is still dealing with the legacy of paramilitarism and cross-border criminality that are undermining its society and economy. It has the worst poverty rates on these islands and ever-increasing rates of dangerous marginalisation.

Northern Ireland desperately needs an investment plan and the failure to deliver this is the most important failure of this Agreement.

While the British government’s refusal to see the need for investment is more significant we have to note the Taoiseach’s refusal to set an example or to show that delivering peace and progress through development is something which his government is committed to.

The financial commitment made by our government is considerably down on what was previously envisaged. More importantly there is a continued refusal to fund important North/South Projects.

In this Agreement the government says it will again review the Narrow Water Bridge project. We shouldn’t be reviewing the project we should be building it.

Even 20 years ago how much would we have given if communities North and South had come looking to build permanent connections and vision of joint development?

This is a deeply flawed Agreement which nonetheless deserves to be supported for two reasons; it puts off the immediate threat to the long-term position of the Assembly and Executive and it promises a means of addressing the destabilising and criminal paramilitarism which should by now have disappeared.

Fundamentally this agreement will change little unless we see an end to the behaviour of recent years which has delivered institutions focussed on the interests of two parties rather than the public interest.

The most effective way to tackle this would be for the leaders of the two governments to end their disengagement and start treating Northern Ireland as a subject worthy of their active attention.

That Prime Minister Cameron attended no negotiation and merely held a meeting with two of the leaders is appalling. How can you build a united society in Northern Ireland if you don’t even try to engage with its problems and you ignore so many of its representatives?

The Taoiseach’s disengagement is equally damaging and a direct reversal of the policies of his predecessors of all parties.

While I do not agree with the policies she imposed, the commitment of Secretary of State Villiers should be respected.

I would also like to note that Minister Flanagan has given a genuine and active personal commitment to negotiating an Agreement and to ongoing involvement in issues concerning Northern Ireland.

This Agreement is called “A Fresh Start”. Let us all hope that this does not translate into more of the same.

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  • Nevin

    Ruth’s contribution represents the triumph of political dogma over lived experience. She appears to be on much firmer ground in this Dáil contribution on estate management company fees.