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Sunday 28 December 2014


For now, the Stormont Agreement is about as good as it's going to get

The British and Irish governments deserve credit for holding firm in Belfast

It had most of the ingredients for yet another Belfast Groundhog negotiation: long drawn-out talks, grimly uncompromising local politicians, exhortations from British and Irish Governments about the importance of goodwill and pragmatism, exhausted journalists hoping for white smoke, an artificial deadline, and so on.

But there were useful differences. There was virtually no media or public interest beyond Ireland and little enough within it. The British and Irish prime ministers had made brief visits and, rather than responding to pleas and threats by staying on, had left early after speaking with one voice about the need for Stormont parties to sort things out for themselves.

The Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan, and the British Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, had also showed a united front in the face of tantrums in the kindergarten about competing wish lists.

The five participating local parties - all of whom have ministries in the Northern Ireland Executive - were united in wanting large sums of money from the British Exchequer and there was much eloquence about Northern Ireland being a special case, but it's more than 16 years since the Good Friday Agreement and sympathy is in short supply.

Austerity has brought tough times to both islands and one fallout of the Scottish referendum debate has been that English taxpayers have discovered they subsidise the Celtic fringe and are not pleased about it. (The Barnett Formula, devised in 1978 as a short-term measure, carves up public spending unevenly: in 2011, public spending per head was £8,529 in England, £9,709 in Wales, £10,152 in Scotland and £10,876 in Northern Ireland.) What's more, the more realistic Northern Ireland politicians are well aware that the province is unloved in both the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic, and that its politicians are seen as fractious and greedy.

So David Cameron offered a modest financial sweetener full of caveats, small print and conditions. First Minister Peter Robinson is a pragmatist, and he realised that much; though Cameron wants DUP support in the event of a hung Westminster parliament, he was not about to enrage the English electorate by rewarding Northern Irish politicians for being difficult.

Borrowing and assets-sales provide much of the £2bn promised; only £650 million is new money. Robinson grumbled ("I think if he wants to bribe us, to bribe us with our own money comes a bit short of what's required") but didn't say no. Sinn Fein had the bigger problem. Fixated on gaining power in the south, the leadership had been trying to decide between a choice of evils: incur charges of hypocrisy by accepting welfare reform and public-spending cuts up north, or bring down the Stormont government and look like unreliable coalition partners.

So Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness spoke of being "distinctly underwhelmed by his [Cameron's] generosity" but went on talking while some of his colleagues produced insults. SF Education Minister John O'Dowd said Cameron was a "penny-pinching accountant", an accusation one certainly can't level at O'Dowd; at a time when cuts are threatening 2,500 jobs in his sector, against the advice of all expert advisers, he has just authorised a new Irish-language school with 15 pupils, which is expected to cost more than €700,000 annually.

The "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed" principle bit the dust, an early victim being an Irish Language Act to give Irish equal status with English, which Sinn Fein had said was a priority.

There was short shrift, too, for a Northern Ireland bill of rights and another inquiry into the murder of the Belfast lawyer Pat Finucane. Instead, what are known as "legacy issues" were addressed with three different bodies to investigate the past. Issues to do with identity, flags and parades were briskly kicked into the long grass.

On the central issues, there will be no resumption of direct rule, welfare reforms and cuts are on their way and a beady Westminster eye will be kept on implementation and efficiency drives.

Still, good though it is that the two governments refused to be divided by their angry children, it's not all roses. Few people like to listen to the uncomfortable voice of Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister, whose party was excluded from the talks, but he's right that the principle of mandatory coalition keeps Stormont dysfunctional. Although there are now provisions to allow big parties with courage to form an opposition, small parties will be excluded.

"Another few months down the line it will maybe need another bailout and another heap of sticking plaster to keep it going again," said Allister. "So it doesn't address the real issue of why Stormont isn't working and won't work, because structurally it's built on sand."

The relieved negotiators will be trying not to think of that but they'll have to address it sooner or later.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards