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These are regular editorials produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent News.

Editorial 225: December 2014

[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]

The pre-Christmas deal in Northern Ireland:
A deal is better than no deal – but it’s not too big a deal

The deal which politicians eventually arrived at in Northern Ireland just before Christmas does not yet have a commonly applied name, though the term ‘Stormont House Agreement’ has been used formally, see here for full document or here for a short summary . If it is significant enough to be given a name, and given the name of the 1998 ‘Good Friday Agreement’ perhaps be could be called the 2014 ‘Christmas Agreement’. While the parties concerned did squeeze a little bit of extra money from David Cameron, they still kicked for touch on a number of issues and there is no indication that decision making at Stormont will necessarily be any easier in the future.

There was however progress on some issues, such as dealing with and archiving the past, and that is to be welcomed. Whether the opportunity arising to decrease corporation tax will be worth the cost is another matter, as is the question of whether reconciliation will be much furthered by the agreement, despite its wording. The extra money will not go far.

The first thing to say is that agreement on the issues concerned should have come a long time ago. We are not saying we support the agreement on welfare reform, for example, but many of the issues dealt with could and should have had agreements made a long time ago but the lack of functionality at the heart of the Northern Ireland Assembly system has meant that no decisions were made. The new agreement does allow for parties to ‘jump overboard’ and from an opposition which is a point of progress in terms of conventional party politics – but this will not make decision making or consensus building easier, it will just allow some parties to dissociate themselves from the centre of party political power.

The proposed devolution of Corporation Tax in 2017 could well be a poisoned chalice. It may cost a couple of hundred million pounds loss to the Northern Ireland block grant (from the UK Treasury) to take the tax rate down to that of the Republic but there is no guarantee that the prospect of additional profits will automatically increase employment or overall economic performance and well being – see e.g. this link - and trade unions and some other commentators have been highly sceptical. Party politicians on the other hand seem to think it is the only game in town. Working to end the brain drain and increasing student places for the skills needed in a modern economy (as opposed to the current proposed cuts) would certainly be part of another approach.

The Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition will have a year and a half from June of this year to the end of 2016 to do its work. Whether it can work a miracle, given current party attitudes, and whether responsibility for parades and protests can really be devolved to the NI Assembly, remains to be seen but holding your breath would be very unwise. The flags issue remains. Perhaps Northern Ireland could see an outbreak of common sense and human rights-related thinking but then we could see a report which gets thrashed before it even comes out and disappears into the woodwork like so many before it. On this issue it is all left to play for and at least a few of the teams are more likely to want to get the man rather than the ball.

The proposals on dealing with the past are more substantial and have the advantage of being backed by some money, £150 million over five years. Included here are several bodies or projects – an Oral History Archive; additional support in terms of mental trauma services for victims and survivors; an Historical Investigations Unit “to take forward investigations into outstanding Troubles-related deaths” and pick up where the HET left off; a commission on information retrieval to inform victims and survivors about the deaths of next of kin; and an Implementation and Reconciliation Group to oversee “themes, archives and information recovery” and to emphasise reconciliation. These proposals in part follow the plans under the Haass talks at the end of 2013. How well all these functions will be met remains to be seen.

There was no agreement on an Irish language act. The ability to vary welfare reform locally, at local cost, is perhaps as much as could be hoped for in terms of a concession from the Tory government which has long decided to screw the poor and reward the rich. The mild proposals for Stormont reform (less departments, slightly fewer MLAs) will do nothing to facilitate better decision making in the future, and, indeed, the threshold for ‘Petitions of Concern’ remains the same. Whether the money for shared and integrated education will move things much forward in this area remains to be seen, and nothing has been agreed on the chronic issue of dividing children on perceived academic ability at age eleven.

There is some progress in this agreement. However the problems at the heart of government in Northern Ireland are not going to go away in any case. Even with more major changes to facilitate consensual decision making, and move beyond the sectarian mould which still envelops most political thinking, it would still be a long haul.

The hope must be that most of the positive initiatives in this agreement bear fruit and that this will give further change and development a fillip as things progress. But the fear is that a fair bit of this agreement will get bogged down in the mire and that, even where there is goodwill to move that Northern Ireland’s favourite political sweet, fudge, will come to the fore and things will muddle on, incompetently, as before. The concrete proposals on dealing with the past are the most positive aspects of this agreement.

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