Naomi Long: Alliance still believes a positive vision, bold ideas and strong leadership is the only way to move forward and respect the spirit of the GFA

Naomi Long is the Leader of the Alliance Party, ahead of her party conference she writes for Slugger about ways to break the current deadlock at Stormont

Twenty years ago, nearly three out of four people in Northern Ireland stepped forward to support the Good Friday Agreement (GFA).

Despite the huge challenges and deep divisions within society, and acknowledging the GFA was not perfect, it was recognised then the next steps forward could be positive for our community. People were clear no-one, whether politician or paramilitary, should take Northern Ireland back.

Today, despite the challenging situation in which we find ourselves, without devolution and with Brexit progressing in its absence without a voice articulating on our behalf, Alliance still believes a positive vision, bold ideas and strong leadership is the only way to move forward and respect the spirit of the GFA.

That’s why, ahead of our party conference this weekend, Alliance has launched our paper Next Steps Forward – a set of proposals which aim to re-inject momentum into the process and restore stability in local politics.

The proposals, available in detail here, are wide-ranging and would finely balance political powers between Westminster and Stormont, with Irish Government input, in a way which respects the constitutional position of Northern Ireland and the overall strands of the GFA, in terms of north-south and East-West cooperation, and avoids nationalist or unionist exclusion in a transitional phase of operation.

They include Westminster legislating for those devolved matters such as the Irish language and equal marriage which seem to have become intractable, taking pressure off the parties to deliver their constituencies in support of any bill, and crucially, allowing a shift in the baseline position before returning to all-party talks.

Reserved matters such as the petition of concern mechanism are also of particular importance in the proposals. Alliance has already laid out our suggestions around reform of the POC, which includes limiting it to use in matters of national identity, matters relating to the legacy of the conflict or matters involving the institutions established under the GFA. Significant reform of the POC will future-proof the Assembly to deal with other social policies and equality issues, preventing any one party evading scrutiny or frustrating the will of the electorate.

We also believe the planned Government consultation on the enabling legislation to implement the Stormont House Agreement on legacy and issues such as inquest funding and a pension for the seriously injured should proceed without further delay. Victims have waited long enough and ought not to suffer further for lack of political progress.

Alliance remains convinced only true multi-party talks with an independent facilitator are capable of reaching a sustainable and inclusive Executive, proposals for which are reflected in the document. A clear timeframe established at the outset will also be crucial in restoring confidence in any process.

We outline a number of measures which could also be taken forward in parallel with any talks process. They include reconvening the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference in a consultative role; reconstituting Assembly Departmental Committees to give advice and guidance to the Secretary of State, scrutinise departmental spending and planning, and advance legislation; re-establishing the Policing Board to restore the oversight required to maintain public confidence and accountability in policing; voting on legislation such as private member’s bills or bills at an advanced stage of development prior to collapse; and the creation of a cross-party Brexit committee to ensure Northern Ireland’s voice is heard in negotiations.

All this would allow MLAs and the parties to re-engage on issues of substance, take on responsibility in return for their salary and, most importantly, help clear the backlog of decision-making which has developed during the impasse.

While these measures fall short of a fully functioning and accountable devolved Executive, as a time-limited transition, operating in parallel with formal talks, it may be more acceptable than any of the alternatives.

We believe it would also create the space politically in which broader agreement could be possible and an Executive formed, by helping rebuild political relationships and trust, and deliver those next steps forward Northern Ireland needs to fulfil our potential and deliver for everyone