Not before time, a detailed talks plan agreed between the two governments has been presented to the Assembly parties and will form the basis of talks over a 10 day period beginning tomorrow. Brian Rowan, former security correspondent and Assembly candidate, has got sight of it and has summarised it in EamonnMallie.com As I’ve been arguing for weeks this is the essential move if the talks are to stand any chance of success. At worst it shifts part of any future blame onto the governments; at best, it allows Sinn Fein to retreat a little and the DUP to advance a little without either losing face.
“All the institutions under the Agreement are now at risk, so the UK Government and Irish Government have agreed on a shared approach to the talks,” the paper says. Eyebrows will raised at “all,” as the British- Irish dimension is obviously flourishing.
Sinn Fein still appear to reject British chairmanship but have amended their proposal from a foreign to a local independent chair. This could delay the talks getting off the ground. The plan – under the headings, scope, participation, structure and timescale -is for the governments to lead the process on outstanding issues, including on a structure to address the questions of the past.
A working group of the parties and governments will be convened to review legacy proposals before any public consultation. Dating back to the Stormont House Agreement of 2014 these proposals include an Historical Investigations Unit, Independent Commission on Information Retrieval, Oral History Archive and an Implementation and Reconciliation Group. But that plan has become bogged down in a battle over the implications of National Security and what this will mean in terms of disclosure to families.
And it can be added, bogged down over the DUP’s refusal to fund inquests on the grounds that the Haas structures were skewed against the Army and towards a republican “ rewrite of history.”
Conclusions are to be reported to a round table of the governments and party leaders The paper says: “On legacy, the objective is to complete engagement on remaining issues so that a full genuine public consultation can be launched with the best possible chance of success.”
It also addresses the issues of trying to form an Executive as well as getting a coalition agreement on a Programme for Government, budget, new approach to governance and an Executive approach to Brexit.
There are to be daily co-ordination meetings as well as regular “process and progress” roundtable meetings.
This is an attempt to add structure and urgency to a process described in recent days as “shambolic”.
While the governments have set out their shared approach in the paper to the parties, there remains an issue over who should chair the talks.
As the latest talks approach, there are continuing issues relating to culture, identity and rights – with Sinn Fein and the SDLP insisting on a stand alone Irish Language Act. This was not resolved in the phase of discussions that ended abruptly last Sunday. Unionists have raised issues relating to Ulster Scots, an Armed Forces Covenant and definition of a victim.
It isn’t clear from the paper how the legacy proposals would differ from the statements in the failed Stormont House Agreement of December 2014 and the revived Fresh Start of a year later. Progress is unlikely if the full weight of decision is left to the local parties, when it was the British government and none of them who bore full responsibility for law order and security for most of the Troubles. Under the St Andrews’ Agreement they also have responsibilities for an Irish Language Act and an NI Bill of Rights, both blocked by unionists for years. Reliance instead on the (UK) Human Rights Act, part of the bedrock of the GFA, looks shaky ever since Theresa May flirted with replacing it to make expulsion of jihadists easier.
The new paper seems a more prescriptive development of Fresh Start, the agreement at the end of 2015 aimed at ending a three year period of deadlock and a threat of DUP withdrawal. Over 11 weeks, the governments in particular the British, made proposals for agreements which were subject to collective monitoring by the governments alongside the Executive parties.
It turned out however that the Fresh Start sceptics were justified. Even the much vaunted Programme for Government the outline of which was agreed in advance between the two main parties and was held out as a model of cooperation, stalled in the end, as described in this verdict by the Nevin Economic Research Institute:
The lack of any targets or commitment to achieving interim outcomes (short-, medium-, long-term outcomes) led critics to question how we might truly judge whether government was making improvements through their interventions. Further to this the lack of an investment strategy, an economic strategy or a social strategy led to widespread scepticism amongst eagle-eyed viewers on whether the Programme for Government was ever going to be deliverable. Nevertheless, despite widespread criticism on these issues political leaders remained mute giving no indication of how they intended to implement the wellbeing framework or deliver improvements across each of the outcomes.
The cautiously optimistic progress report published as late as 17 November 2016 reads farcically today. Fresh Start’s reliance on promises of good intent was foolhardy. Setting up more arms length bodies to examine and consult proved to be no substitutes for action and became alibis for continuing deadlock.
Something more substantial is required this time. Greater public accountability on delivering policies and critical close monitoring of implementation deadlines by the two governments actin in synch are minimum requirements. They should also institute an early warning system for potential breakdown through the civil service.
As a critic of endless stalling Gerry Adams, so often regarded as the villain of the piece, has a point. On the other hand his pressure on the other Dublin parties to produce a strategy for unity seems to have been thwarted.
There is a heart-felt plea in the paper for consultations on the legacy to avoid the ” blight of political commentary.” That’ll be a tall order for armchair warriors on this site and others who like nothing better than to continue the war by other means.
Success in the talks means avoiding the curse of the zero sum, the idea that this is a poker game where one side scoops the pool and other side loses their shirt. The only acceptable result is win:win.
A more rigorous talks process over the next ten days will put Gerry Adams and the others to the test. No more cotton wool words please!.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London