Is Northern Ireland political deal as fresh a start as it first appears?

McGuinness and Robinson: tentatively back on speaking terms. PA/Brian Lawless

Once again, Northern Ireland’s citizens are digesting news that their politicians have brokered a deal which saves power-sharing at the country’s devolved assembly at Stormont.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin – the two biggest parties in Northern Ireland – have brought an end to ten weeks of negotiations between themselves and the British and Irish governments with the publication of A Fresh Start: the Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan.

At its heart, the deal is an economic one. Agreement has been reached on the long-standing stumbling block of welfare reform, with the Northern Ireland Executive set to fund measures to mitigate the impact of cuts imposed by Westminster.

Supporters of the deal have trumpeted the fact that Northern Ireland remains sheltered from the harshest winds of austerity – those which buffet other regions of the UK. Critics, however, have bemoaned the agreement’s failure to truly break new ground on welfare reform, with the chancellor George Osborne refusing to loosen his purse-strings any further.

With the published document reading much like December 2014’s Stormont House Agreement, which aimed to stop the collapse of power-sharing, many have been left wondering just how “fresh” the proposals in relation to welfare actually are.

Economic focus

The UK government has, however, pledged an extra £500m for issues specific to Northern Ireland – including security, policing and cross-community initiatives. One such initiative involves the removal of so-called “Peace Walls” that separate parts of Belfast.

A corporation tax rate of 12.5% will also be introduced in Northern Ireland by April 2018, putting the region out of step with the rest of the UK (where it is 20%) but bringing it in level with the Republic of Ireland. So Northern Ireland’s exceptional economic circumstances look set to continue for some time.

While heavy on fiscal detail, the deal has fallen considerably short on several other contentious fronts. Most notably, the issue of how to tackle the legacy of the Troubles has been left unresolved – filed away in the folder marked “for another day (and another deal)”.

This unwillingness to grasp the nettle of what is a highly emotive issue has aroused the ire of victims’ campaigners in Northern Ireland. The deal’s chief architects – the DUP and Sinn Féin – have, they argue, parked dealing with “the past” for the sake of striking a larger bargain.

Not everyone on board

From a democratic standpoint, the deal is remarkable for the degree of input (or lack of it) from the smaller parties in the Northern Ireland Executive: the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and Alliance Party. Reflecting the size of their mandate, the DUP and Sinn Féin have thrashed out a deal between themselves.

Their other executive partners have been kept firmly in the dark and are now expected to ratify the proposals. This brazenly duopolistic approach to what is meant to be “inclusive” power-sharing has irked many in the UUP, SDLP and Alliance who have demanded more time to scrutinise the deal.

McGuiness and Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams, PA/Brian Lawless

Some might say that big parties arriving at an agreement that is much to the distaste of smaller parties is exactly how politics typically works in a representative democracy. In this case, although all five parties are in the power-sharing government, the DUP and Sinn Féin are acting as if they are “the government” and the UUP, SDLP and Alliance are “the opposition”.

And in this analogy lies perhaps a sign of the direction in which politics in Northern Ireland could be heading. The new agreement reaffirms previous commitments to reform the power-sharing arrangements at Stormont and introduce provisions for an official, fully-funded “opposition”. When the dust settles this could be the most ground-breaking aspect of the new deal.

For now, the big news is that a deal has been done and the government in Northern Ireland has been saved from collapse. It will make it – slightly gasping for breath but still (more or less) functioning – to the finishing line of the due election date in May next year. And then the politicians will hand the baton to the people and, somewhat nervously, await judgement.

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