A New Deal for Northern Ireland

Politics needs to change in Northern Ireland. How we govern needs to change. Our political culture must transform or our future will be at best no different to our present – political stalemate with a sluggish, dependency economy; limited investment and failing public services. Optimistically our current zombie government will continue to tick over, at worst we descend into a sectarian spiral and we all know where that can lead if unchecked. 

We need politics to work. But it can’t be a return to the failure of the last Assembly. RHI, SIF, 675 days without an Executive and the myriad of other scandals and failures show that fundamental reform is needed if we are really to transform Northern Ireland for the greater good. That requires all of us to step outside our political comfort zones and take risks for the future. Northern Ireland needs a New Deal.

Firstly, and most importantly, all main political parties need to commit to making this place work. Whether unionist, nationalist or other it is in everyone’s best interest to make Northern Ireland successful.

For unionists an economically more prosperous Northern Ireland that is inclusive and stable is more likely to win support for the constitutional status quo from both within NI and in Great Britain. For nationalists a successful North minimises the economic and political cost of unification and has more chance of persuading a majority for change both in NI and the Republic. Essentially everyone can win, if for completely different motivations.

A key stumbling block is unionist fear that nationalists, and Sinn Fein in particular, are content to watch Northern Ireland fail and will tolerate this self-harm for the greater goal of Irish unity. In contrast nationalists believe that unionists, especially the DUP, despise their Irishness and will do all in their power to make them second class citizens as they see it in their own land. This vicious circle has brought us to where we are today. Our choice is either to break out of this self-imposed logjam or continue until we return to the past.

Sinn Fein may well say that this scenario suits unionists – the Union continues which they help copper fasten instead of ending partition. They are right, but the Union will continue anyway for the foreseeable future. Thirty years of violence didn’t bring Irish unity one inch further forward. The only way unification will take place will be with the support of the majority in Northern Ireland and with the acquiescence of the Irish electorate, which will only come if the cost of change is minimal and it doesn’t risk the Republic’s political stability. It is in everyone’s political, economic and social interest to make Northern Ireland a success.

A New Deal will only work if everyone can see its benefit and are willing to buy-in. So what should be included?

RHI has shown that Stormont needs fundamental reform. We need to return to the basic tenets of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. That means ending the St Andrews process for appointing First and Deputy First Ministers, which has exacerbated political division. It means having a fully inclusive Executive which has transparent processes, real accountability and an agreed Programme for Government (PfG) and Budget. A reformed Petition of Concern that can only be used for its original purpose and not to defend a party position nor block a social change that is supported by the majority in the Assembly. The NI Civil Service also needs reform and capacity building to support these changes and deliver the revolution needed within our public services and economy.

This transformation will require a consensus for reform as part of PfG and a longer term development strategy for Northern Ireland. Agreed change can be achieved on these contentious issues, as the unanimous support for the Bengoa health reforms has shown. Other key areas requiring fundamental strategic change includes creating a new unified education system that can overcome division at a young age, an investment plan to develop our third world infrastructure and most importantly a plan to restructure our economy to make it less public sector dependent and with a greater focus on wealth creation.

We also need to grasp the nettle that is The Past. There is no evidence that an agreed way forward about how to investigate, prosecute or commemorate the actions from The Troubles is achievable. We may not be able to agree on our history but we can concur on how we move forward and address the future. Taking a victims first approach that provides financial support, mental health services and a focus on remembering loss can at least allow society to support those who have been so terribly affected by the conflict. We can also agree I hope that the scourge of paramilitarism can finally be removed, with even the very word scoured from our vocabulary. Criminality is criminality and should face the full rigours of the law.

Brexit has disturbed the improving relationships on these islands and we do not yet know what impact it will finally have on Northern Ireland.  Although we do know that our dispute is highly resilient and has endured much greater change. It would be easy to try and park all these issues until after Brexit, but we don’t have that luxury. We need good government now – even more so in these circumstances.

As 1998 showed, finding agreement on how to embed peace and develop politics is not without pain on all sides. Recent years have shown how easy it is to backslide. We all now need to take a step back and recognise the potential for further suffering and division if we do not act. We can continue on our current path to political stagnation or, alternatively, choose to build a better future and agree a New Deal for Northern Ireland. It’s our decision.

Photo by veve is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

Philip Smith is former Ulster Unionist MLA for Strangford. He is writing in a personal capacity.