After rubbing our eyes several times, the first thing to do about the 13 pages of the Draft Agreement published in full by Eamonn Mallie is to have it recognised for what it claims to be. As Sinn Fein has already insisted on its authenticity, the initiative now lies with the DUP. Clearly the document was the hymn sheet the secretary state Karen Bradley was working off in her Commons statement yesterday , although she understandably refused to publish it, as it was the DUP’s and Sinn Fein’s document not the British government’s. Even so it is hard to believe that the actual drafting was not the work of civil servants.
Once it is acknowledged as a draft agreement, the second is to congratulate the DUP and Sinn Fein negotiators for having got that far. Despite gaps, studied vagueness and omitted themes, the range goes further than expected.
The overall impact of the document is that mutual respect is recognised but not yet ratified by the two parties in hard copy, if not for the first time, then in some greater detail than before. Sceptics will say “here we go again” but the timing and circumstances of a 400 day governmental freeze apparently hanging mainly on the issue of the Irish Language is a crucial difference.
On the other hand the Stormont House Agreement was eventually reached only at the second attempt and then negated within months when Sinn Fein walked out. This Draft hasn’t even reached the stage of agreement. And as the DUP has refused the fence it is hard to see how they will jump it now.
Yet here are lots of good things which will always be worth pursuing.
Cooling off period
A cooling off period of a total of 24 weeks is recommended in the event of deadlock in forming an Executive before another Assembly election is called “within a (further) reasonable period”. That could amount to as much as 30 weeks before another full blown crisis is faced. You could say it allows a political strike to have constitutional validity. While it implies continuous talking to resolve major roadblocks it is hardly a guarantee against another boycott.
Not quite full blown collective responsibility
Better coordination within the Executive is yet again promised with an early was warning system to flag up “issues.” This suggests something like a Maze peace centre couldn’t be cancelled by a phone call or email although I’m not sure it would capture something as financially modest as the Liofa grant.
Petition of concern. Promises promises?
The document promises “good faith” in deploying the blocking mechanism of the petition of concern and (another!) Assembly committee to report on how to limit it. It points out that no one party at present has the 30 votes needed to activate it alone. Is there a hint that the DUP might not use it to try to block same sex marriage? Would SF invoke it to block another “austerity” measure like the Welfare Bill which had passed the Assembly by simple majority?
The Language issue – full Irish for the Assembly but voluntary expansion only
On the hot topic of the Language(s), the document proclaims “we have reached an agreement” but there is much vagueness amid many assurances.
There are three Acts, one general and one each which describes parity of legal status if not usage between Irish and Ulster Scots.The general Act is the instrument for amending the other two as all three go through the Assembly together. Promotion of the languages would depend on “existing provisions,” That seems to mean no pressure to adopt them beyond the already receptive and only by specific case by case demand.
A commissioner for each language would promote best practice within public bodies but “best practice” is not defined.
A Central Translation Hub would be set up in the Department of Finance (rumoured to be three officials).
“English remains the language of the courts” unless “when deemed necessary.” “Nothing will affect the status of the English language. “but simultaneous translation will be set up in the Assembly.
Where is dealing with the past?
The draft is weak on the legacy. It “recognises the hurt” caused and talks of “greater sensitivity” towards victims and survivors. Among other papers not disclosed are those covering a negotiation between the government and Sinn Fein on the legacy elements in the Stormont House Agreement.
New move on human rights
A panel of four experts would advise on the particular circumstances” that might require extra rights for Northern Ireland in a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights, particularly after the EU Withdrawal Bill comes into force in just over a year’s time.
The real business of government
There are ringing declarations to undertake “major transformation” in health, education infrastructure etc, They would implement the Begoa report on health and social service reform sand spend another £1 billion promised in the DUP deal with the Conservatives on health. As the pact has been now acknowledged and incorporated in this draft agreement, will it now become less politically toxic?
The big question
Like its more limited predecessors, the draft agreement promises a fully functioning Assembly. The question now for public opinion and the two governments is: how can they be helped to deliver it? It will take more than cutting MLA salaries and not ruling out another election.
In the Belfast Telegraph, Malachi O’Doherty puts the onus on the DUP to change tack to save the Union.
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