To what does A Fresh Start commit the Executive in 2016?

2016 calendarAfter false dawns in January 2014 and January 2015, the DUP and Sinn Féin seem as committed as they will ever be to the subset of political and social hot potatoes bagged up in A Fresh Start with a seasoning of centenary commemorations and celebrations.

Yet the oven is unlikely to be turned up to its full temperature given the leeway parties will need to contest the Assembly election this spring … and Sinn Féin need to contest the Dáil election expected at the end of February. If there’s a way to heat potatoes in a slow cooker [Ed – Irish stew?] the political chiefs chefs up on the hill will find it.

The DUP may drop a few Assembly seats from their remarkable haul of 38 (30% vote share) in 2011, and Sinn Féin may gain a few MLAs on top of their 29 (27% vote share), but the two parties that produced A Fresh Start will definitely be the two implementing it in May.

The post-election choreography will be distinctly different this year. The Programme for Government will be agreed before d’Hondt is run to select ministries and ministers are nominated. There’s a limit of a week between the Assembly first sitting post election and d’Hondt having to be run, so legislation at Westminster may be needed to extend this to two weeks.

At the end of the PfG deliberations, the UUP and SDLP – and to a lesser extent, Alliance – will have to conclude whether there is more political capital in refusing to be part of the Executive for the next five years, or whether they want to at least begin the new term by sitting around the table (with the option of later withdrawing).

There’s also the not uncontentious matter of selecting a new speaker to replace Mitchel McLaughlin who is not standing for election in May. And there will be at least one more vacancy in the Speaker’s team with deputy John Dallat not returning the new Assembly. (Robin Newton is only a few weeks younger than Mitchel but the Principal Deputy Speaker has given no indication that he has any plans to stand down.)

In the meantime, we can expect Arlene Foster to settle into her new role as DUP leader and First Minister, and speak more about her priority for education. (Sinn Féin were rumoured to be happy to take Economy or Finance ahead of Education in the next running of d’Hondt.)

A three person panel was to be appointed by the Executive by the end of December with the task of bringing a report before the end of May 2016 with recommendations for a strategy to disband paramilitary groups. The (post-election) Executive will publish an action plan and timescales for implementation of the strategy by the end of June 2016. Only after this strategy is agreed by the Executive will the UK Government provide an additional £25m over five years (matched by the Executive) to to tackle continuing paramilitary activity.

A Fresh Start commits the Executive to establishing the Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition by March 2016. They’ll have eighteen months (September 2017) to report back.

Other Fresh Start commitments …

  • A compact civic advisory panel was to be established by June 2015 to bring civic voices and civic views as advise to the Executive. A Fresh Start recommits to establishing the six person panel, but no time frame is specified.
  • Proposals to devolve parading to NI Assembly were originally to be tabled at Executive by June 2015. A discussion paper “is currently being prepared” and no timeframe is specified in A Fresh Start for OFMDFM to bring it to the Executive.
  • An Independent Fiscal Council for Northern Ireland is to be established by the Executive (once its membership and terms of reference are agreed with the UK Government).
  • The next budget will provide additional funding for independent advice services in recognition of the complexity of welfare and tax credit changes. The amount of additional funding was not specified in A Fresh Start (nor was the existing level of funding). [Ed – At the end of 2016, welfare devolves back from Westminster to Stormont.]
  • Will we start to see the fruits of the UK Government’s additional £60m over five years to support the Executive’s delivery of confidence and relationship building measures within and between communities, contributing to the conditions that will allow the removal of peace walls and the creation of a shared future?
  • In the Stormont House Agreement, the UK Government promised contributions of up to £500m over 10 years of new capital funding to support shared and integrated education. Individual projects were to be agreed between the Executive and the UK Government. A Fresh Start allows this capital money to go beyond education and also support shared housing projects (subject to individual projects being agreed by the UK Government).

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