Westminster’s pressure on the NI parties looks like hotting up after Thursday’s council elections

Chris Heaton -Harris NI Secretary  

The Northern Ireland parties are fighting on a phantom agenda for Thursday’s  council elections. Few seem to have noticed and nobody seems to mind, preoccupied as they are by the electoral struggle, the local media mostly included. This at any rate is the verdict of  our most provocative and analytically searching professional  commentator Newton Emerson who is convinced a bailout is coming. The other big change pending is  the prospect of a transformation of the legacy deadlock by the appointment of the former chief justice Sir Declan Morgan to head the proposed Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR).

First Newton, in two articles in the Irish News

Civil servants and public bodies are being put through a pantomime of having to identify dramatic cuts that will almost certainly never be made… he proposals are now out for public consultation on their equality impact, a legal process that runs until the end of July. By the time responses are written up it will be Autumn, when the Treasury cheque will have arrived – or at least clearly be in the post – to cover the DUP’s return to work..

But the government’s true agenda is to have these problems addressed through public sector reform and revenue-raising in Northern Ireland, in return for a rescue cheque. That will be the budget argument if and when devolution returns

We are in the midst of an artificial financial crisis, so an air of unreality hung over the meeting of the Education Authority (EA) board this Tuesday to consider savings of £200 million.

The Northern Ireland Office has engineered an £800 million shortfall in Stormont’s budget, knowing the Treasury will magically find a similar sum in the Autumn – £1 billion has been reported – to cover the DUP’s retreat back to work. Drastic cuts can almost certainly be avoided if everyone holds their nerve for the next few months.

While segregation is a much larger issue than administrative reform, absorbing the EA into the Department of Education would loosen religious influence. The Churches would remain stakeholders in the system if the board were abolished, while politicians could hold officials and ministers to account in the assembly.

Alas, a fake budget crisis will bring none of these matters to a head

Why aren’t the other parties putting the DUP up against the wall over this and the DUP crying blackmail?

Meanwhile, the significance of Declan Morgan’s appointment cannot be overeestimated, even before the fate of the Legacy Bill has been decided. The House of Lords have been pulling the Bill with its plan for a virtual amnesty to pieces for some weeks now.   Particularly scathing criticism has been levelled at the replacement of most due legal process and inquiry by an independent  information recovery commission, tasked to review the  police and DPP records and hear  fresh – but volunteered –  evidence.   In response to calls from all sides to dump the Bill, the government have been slowly amending it in an effort to get it past the Lords who almost never reject Bills wholesale anyway out of respect for  Commons’ primacy. They are even  promising “game changing ” moves shortly which may answer many of Nuala O’Loan’s criticisms.

Morgan’s appointment is surely transformative. As chief justice  he was the leading advocate for due legal process and instigated a more  powerful system of Troubles inquests under the supervision of the  higher judiciary . He has already made it pretty clear that he won’t be  implicated in  a government whitewash.

I recognise the importance of this role. My experience of the current system of dealing with Northern Ireland’s past means that I know we need to try to do things differently….

“I know that trust and confidence in the system that serves the people is vital. Our society deserves to move forward and embrace a shared future.

A substantially reformed  Bill is now likely  to be presented to MPs and victims groups which preserves more legal process and  increases  powers of disclosure and  further inquiry. It needs to cut through  ultimately sterile arguments about a hierarchy of victims and  “lawfare,”  the battle between Sinn Fein and unionists over  forcing  disclosure of state actors’ abuses while omerta remains the general rule for  the former IRA.

It seems inconceivable  that  Troubles  inquests should be wound up, that  36  Kenova reports should be suppressed  and ” historic” inquires cease. World wide,  such investigations  are increasing not contracting through a combination of technological development and  demands for human rights. Great risks are taken in oppressive regimes.  Northern Ireland cannot to afford to be an outlier. It is too  readily  accepted that disclosure under immunity is well nigh impossible. With the unanimous  committed support of all parties and groups, it should at least be tried.

So stand by for a recasting of the legacy Bill and a statement on a bailout – if the DUP take the plunge and Newton is right.

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