The draft agreement revealed: So far but yet so near

The cats have been let out of the bag thanks to the sources of Eamonn Mallie and Barney Rowan, (Sinn Fein?). From documents of “a dozen pages or so plus annexes and separate agreements,” we pick up the story below from a week ago last Friday.

The secretary of state will no doubt be questioned on the details in a statement on the talks failure  when the Commons resumes tomorrow.  The Sinn Fein leadership will meet Theresa May on Wednesday and the DUP will not be far behind. Could be it that a rethink like that forced by  DUP’s intervention over the Brexit joint Report  last December to win guarantees against an economic border in the Irish Sea could be enough to push them over the line after a cooling off period ?

There is lot more to digest here beyond an Irish Language Act. The material  includes references to a negotiation between Sinn Fein and the government on ” a legacy structure, funding for inquests” and  the application of the military covenant to Northern Ireland.  All of it is familiar territory. If indeed the bones of an agreement are as stated here,  they are more ambitious than we were led to believe and need  development and better selling  rather than a reversion to square one. But before we can go any further, much depends on whether the DUP will own up to the substance of this account.



A week or so later, there is a more detailed but disputed assessment of to where they got in the negotiation that Friday – what Sinn Fein now calls a draft agreement with the DUP.

  • It is described as a document of a dozen pages or more, plus annexes and other separate commitments.
  • those separate elements include a negotiation between Sinn Fein and the NIO on the long-overdue consultation on the legacy structure proposed in the Stormont House Agreement of 2014 plus funding for legacy inquests.

A source has revealed that in the context of agreement the British government has committed to removing the controversial question on a statute of limitations from the legacy consultation.

  • another separate element is understood to involve the Military Covenant and a negotiation between the  DUP and the NIO.
  • the issue of marriage equality had not been resolved. There would be a Private Members’ Bill but NO certainty that it would not be blocked by a Petition of Concern.
  • Arlene Foster would be First Minister.
  • there would be a significantly longer period of time to resolve differences in the event of a resignation at the top of the Executive. An initial period of 6 weeks and an additional period beyond that of some months.
  • a committee to look at the Bill of Rights.
  • a review of the Petition of Concern.
  • the document annexes relate to a number of matters including programme for government and health funding commitments.
  • and controversially there would be separate Irish Language and Ulster Scots Acts that would then be replicated into a Respecting Language and Diversity Act.

It has the feel of one and a half Irish Language Acts and one and a half Ulster Scots Acts.

Last weekend, it became clear that it was this that was causing most concern inside the DUP.

“We haven’t done anything to prepare people,” one of the party’s senior elected representatives told me.

Eamonn Mallie  describes the sequence from agreement on the brink  to collapse. His account  which is also based on DUP sources  provides the evidence that the DUP leadership  bottled it when  they came into contact with the wider party and unionist public reaction,

Unresolved matters were highlighted inside brackets which would look like this: [ …….. …….. ] (This is not specific to party draft agreement document but an exemplar).

As each issue is resolved through negotiation the square brackets are removed.

By the time the DUP’s final version of the draft agreement reached Sinn Féin all the ‘square brackets’ inside the thirteen/fifteen pages long document had disappeared.

All the ‘heavy lifting’ had been done on the big issues. To repeat … the square brackets around all the contentious issues had disappeared in this draft agreement document.

This included addressing three self contained Acts, an Irish Language Act, an Ulster Scots Act, and a third, called, Respecting Language and diversity Act.

The draft agreement covered all of the structures to be put in place and that included the draft bills forming the basis of the legislation necessary for the realising of the Language Acts which would come into being simultaneously.

Each act is envisioned to reference the other but any one of the single acts would be freestanding and self contained.

It can be revealed here that The Acts provide for extensive devices to support the use of the languages.

Included in the new structures would be ‘a central translation hub’ for the Civil Service and an instant ‘translation service’ for proceedings in the Assembly.

In other words, the Architecture, Provisions for the Language Acts and the appropriate structures had all been agreed.

The two governments were ‘fully sighted’ of the contents of the draft agreement.

In fact conversations had by then moved onto ‘restoration’ of the institutions with the necessary draft legislation relating to the bills leading to the establishment of the three language acts having been put to bed.

Buoyed up by these developments Prime Minister Theresa May was advised by her officials it would be appropriate for her to be at Stormont last Monday.

Downing Street respectively alerted ‘Merrion Street,’ Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s office in Dublin of Mrs May’s intentions and soon choppers would be in the air.

A British administration insider said “it is inconceivable the PM would have considered coming to Parliament Buildings if she did not believe a deal was in the offing.

Last Saturday week morning, a DUP insider advised me he had been in the company of several DUP MLAs the previous night and they had not a clue about what was coming down the line.

This ignorance obtained too for a number of MPS. The DUP negotiating team of Arlene Foster, Simon Hamilton, Edwin Poots, Timothy Johnston and Philip Weir were playing their cards very close to their chests – mindful that there is a cross over between some of the negotiators and the 10 strong Party Officers team

Fear gripped the Unionist community according to a DUP insider. Ghosts of the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement were reappearing with guarantees given by UUP leader Jim Molyneaux back then that he had been assured by PM Margaret Thatcher there would be no Dublin involvement in any deal.

Unionists’ worst fears were realised in 1985. Their government went over their heads.

An Irish Language Act was the bogey man this time in the emerging deal and MLAs were being left in no doubt about grassroots opinion on this matter.

A planned DUP Sinn Féin meeting to address presentational issues of language in the draft agreement document didn’t take place on Monday morning.

The writing was on the wall.

The ship was going down. The PM’s visit with the Taoiseach adjudged to be a ‘distraction’ was used to mask the real story.

Arlene Foster returned to restating she could not recommend an Irish Language Act to her community last Tuesday and Wednesday.

That is not how the DUP’s version of the draft agreement text reads. The paper leads one to conclude the leadership had every intention of doing a selling job on a political structure facilitating a free standing Irish Language Act.

Such was the ferocity of the backlash visited upon MLAs and some MPs that Arlene Foster, Nigel Dodds and their team, opted not to disclose details of the draft agreement document to the Monday morning meeting of the MLAs.

There is no telling what the fallout would have been for the leadership of the party if the full facts had surfaced then – particularly any buy in into an Irish Language Act no matter how it was packaged.

The problem for the DUP’s version of events is that none of the smaller parties to the moribund Assembly believes Arlene Foster’s version of events as their spokespersons demonstrated in conversation with Mark Carruthers on The View on BBC One NI.









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