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Politics Amp Policy
Northern Ireland parties reach broad deal
From the Financial Times of Tue, 23 Dec 2014 17:19:48 GMT

Northern Ireland’s political leaders have reached broad agreement on tackling the legacy of the province’s past as well as its present economic problems with a last-minute deal bolstered by a £2bn financial package from the UK government.

The agreement, secured after 30 hours of nonstop talks in Belfast, comes after months of deadlock among the five parties in the Northern Ireland executive. The impasse had threatened to bring down the province’s power-sharing arrangement and had imperilled the achievements of the peace process.

Charlie Flanagan, Irish foreign minister, said: “Today we are building on the hard-won peace on this island with a new agreement which aims to further reconciliation and foster economic growth.” He said the deal, known as the Stormont House Agreement after the building where the talks were held, covered “a broad range of political, social and economic issues”.

Peter Robinson, Northern Ireland’s first minister and leader of the Democratic Unionist party, said the deal was “as much as and more than we have ever been able to do on these issues in the past. So it is a very significant agreement.”

He said he would be recommending the agreement to the DUP — a stance shared by Sinn Féin and the Ulster Unionists, meaning the deal will have the backing of the three largest parties in Northern Ireland’s executive and elected assembly.

Although it is a detailed agreement it is not the comprehensive answer to the enduring sectarian, social and economic problems that some have hoped for since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which brought an end to three decades of violence. However, it provides a framework for the resolution of those issues and places the responsibility for resolving them with the province’s politicians.

The agreement covers welfare and financial reform, with the support of a financial package from the UK government — close to £2bn over 10 years — to ease the pain of looming public spending cuts. It also offers ways for the parties to address the sensitive issues of the flying of flags, routes for Orange Order marches, and other issues related to Northern Ireland’s bloody past.

“It gives the parties a platform to develop a future that was otherwise looking very bleak indeed,” said Rick Wilford, professor of politics at Queens University Belfast. “We were looking at a car crash if [the talks] had not worked. We are now in a controlled manoeuvre to avoid a car crash.”

David Cameron, UK prime minister, tweeted: “I am delighted that a workable agreement has been reached that can allow Northern Ireland to enjoy a brighter, more prosperous future.”

The agreement means Northern Ireland has moved a step closer to getting the power to set its own rate of corporate tax. George Osborne, UK chancellor, had promised to devolve tax-setting powers to Belfast if the parties could strike a deal.

If the talks had failed, it would have led to the immediate collapse of the executive and probably brought forward elections from 2016 to next year. It would also have led to the reimposition of direct rule by the UK government through the Northern Ireland Office. That has happened before, most notably between 2002 and 2007, but an incentive for the parties in the talks was that they did not want it to happen again.

Prof Wilford said the agreement was “optimal” in the circumstances. “Most of the parties seem able to live with it,” he said.

“But it is one thing to reach an agreement and another thing to implement it.”

Main points of Stormont House Agreement
UK government to provide “additional spending power of almost £2bn” to the Northern Ireland executive
Executive to adopt in January 2015 a “comprehensive programme of public-sector reform and restructuring”, including a reduction in the Northern Ireland civil service.
OECD to deliver an independent review of public-sector reform by the end of 2015.
A commission on “flags, identity, culture and tradition” to be established by June 2015 to form basis for addressing these issues, and to report within 18 months.
Responsibility for “parades and related protests” to be devolved in principle to the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Executive to establish an Oral History Archive to provide “a central place for people from all backgrounds [...] to share experiences and narratives related to the Troubles”.
A new independent body to investigate outstanding Troubles-related deaths.
Number of executive departments to be reduced from 12 to nine for the 2016 Assembly elections.
Recognition of the Irish language consistent with the Council of Europe charter on minority and regional languages.
Irish and UK governments to monitor implementation of the Stormont House Agreement.

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