The British and Irish governments have published a draft deal aimed at restoring Northern Ireland’s power-sharing institutions. It was released on Thursday evening and rightly hailed as positive news. The Stormont Assembly hasn’t operated since January 2017, when Sinn Féin collapsed the Executive, supposedly in protest at the DUP’s role in a botched renewable heating scheme.
That pretext was quickly forgotten and the “cash for ash” RHI scandal merits just one line in the latest document, New Decade, New Approach, which runs to sixty-two pages. Julian Smith, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and Simon Coveney, the Dublin government’s foreign minister, must now wait to see whether Ulster’s political parties sign up to their proposals.
Since the Good Friday Agreement established power-sharing in 1998, Northern Ireland has suffered a series of political crises that culminated in hot-house talks, but the resulting texts were always agreed before they were announced. Though the process this time seems to have been choreographed, officially, the parties are still consulting with their members about the acceptability of the deal.
If there is a breakthrough, it will come after three years of Sinn Féin insisting that its demands must be met, if it is to retake seats in the province’s devolved government. The republican party’s main “red line” was its insistence on an Irish Language Act, which it sees as a way of promoting “Irish national identity” on the basis that “Northern Ireland is not British”, to quote its northern leader, Michelle O’Neill.
New Decade, New Approach falls short of satisfying Sinn Fein’s demand that this legislation should be “free-standing”, opting instead to change the Northern Ireland Act at Westminster. But it does establish an Irish language commissioner, with powers to promote and police provision of Gaelic. It also grants the language “official” status and facilitates its use in court proceedings.
In an attempt to balance these provisions, the deal creates another commissioner for the “Ulster Scots / Ulster British” tradition and establishes a rather Orwellian sounding “Office of Identity and Cultural Expression”. These posts are unlikely to ease unionist concerns that a language commission will generate endless demands, impose costly legal obligations on public bodies and promote divisive policies around signage aimed at eroding Northern Ireland’s sense of being part of the UK. In a province obsessed with culture and identity, the deal makes sure that this preoccupation will become an even more central part of its political life.
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The Conservative party used to believe that many of Northern Ireland’s worst problems were caused by a massive, overfunded public sector that crowded out private enterprise. Now it proposes to solve Ulster’s difficulties by creating a raft of new commissions and government offices. Naturally, Julian Smith has also promised the obligatory “financial package” from the Treasury to coax the province’s politicians back to work.
These shortcomings might be easier to overlook if the other main strand of the agreement – which aims to stabilise the devolved institutions – was more effective or meaningful. The deal was supposed to ensure that no party could crash power-sharing again or cause Northern Ireland to go for years without regional government.
New Decade, New Approach claims to contain a package of measures to deliver “institutions that are more resilient”, but these are among the document’s weakest provisions. They require the parties to sign up to principles of “good faith, mutual respect and trust”, tweak Stormont’s ministerial codes a little and participate in some new committees aimed at encouraging understanding.
Conspicuously, no sanctions are mooted for pulling down the institutions, nor are there any provisions that allow the remaining ministers to govern if one party walks away. In fact, there is nothing to prevent Sinn Féin, and it is Sinn Féin that repeatedly uses this tactic, from collapsing the Executive in a year’s time and issuing a fresh set of demands.
Despite some glaring problems, if a deal is struck, there will be relief in Northern Ireland. The latest round of negotiations have taken place against the backdrop of NHS strikes and lengthening hospital waiting lists. The document promises to settle the pay dispute and provide nine hundred new nursing and midwifery undergraduate places.
Hospitals and schools in Northern Ireland have been in crisis due to the political vacuum in Northern Ireland, as decisions on their budgets have been delayed and badly needed reforms have been postponed. Yet, despite including some aspirational passages about revamping the public sector, there’s little in the document to suggest that, if Stormont is rebooted, it will tackle the difficult and sensitive issues it previously ignored.
After three years in cold storage, it would be churlish not to welcome the possibility that power-sharing in Northern Ireland might be restored. That doesn’t mean that the Assembly and the Executive will govern the province effectively, if they do return. And it certainly doesn’t mean that Stormont won’t be in crisis again a few years or even months down the line.