Deal struck to save powersharing at Stormont 'turning point'
A deal has been struck to save Northern Ireland's faltering powersharing administration, but without resolution on how to address the painful legacy of the Troubles.
The agreement between the Democratic Unionists, Sinn Fein and the UK and Irish governments has been hailed as an "important turning point" by Prime Minister David Cameron.
The accord has settled a long-running wrangle over implementing welfare reforms in the region and has established initiatives for finally ridding the region of paramilitaries.
It will also see the UK Treasury commit a further £500 million to the Executive to spend on issues deemed "unique" to Northern Ireland, such as tackling the threat posed by dissident republicans and building better community relations through efforts to bring down the so-called "peace walls".
A dispute over enacting legislation to enable Northern Ireland to set its own rate of corporation tax has been resolved as well, with the rate now set to come down to the 12.5% levied across the border in the Irish Republic by April 2018.
But, to the anger of victims' campaigners, the deal entitled "A Fresh Start: the Stormont House Agreement and Implementation Plan" does not include new mechanisms to tackle the toxic legacy of the conflict.
An impasse between Sinn Fein and the UK government over the disclosure of official documents to proposed truth-recovery bodies prevented progress in that area.
The two governments have said they will "reflect" on how best to move forward on legacy issues at a later date.
The measures that have been agreed will, however, save the Stormont administration from threatened collapse.
A series of political crises, including a summer murder linked to the IRA and a budgetary black hole running to hundreds of millions of pounds, had pushed the coalition Executive toward implosion.
The subsequent emergency talks process took ten weeks to produce Tuesday's accord.
Mr Cameron welcomed the agreement.
"This breakthrough today is an important turning point for Northern Ireland," he said.
"The agreement secures sustainability for Northern Ireland's budget, sets out how we'll deal with paramilitary groups, and could provide a basis for a shared future for the people of Northern Ireland."
Mr Cameron's Irish counterpart, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, said the progress on tackling paramilitaries was a critical step.
"The Agreement provides the people of Northern Ireland with a chance to have the burden of thuggery, intimidation and sectarian hatred taken off their backs once and for all," he said.
DUP First Minister Peter Robinson said: "We believe the agreement will consolidate the peace, secure stability, enable progress and offer all our people hope for the future."
Sinn Fein's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said the settlement represented a new opportunity.
"This agreement signals our endeavour to engender the sea change which our community is demanding; a new beginning for politics and an opportunity to move forward with a real sense of purpose," he said.
However, Amnesty International was among a number of campaign groups that criticised the lack of progress on victims' issues.
Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty's NI programme director said: "The latest failure by both governments to agree how to investigate past human rights violations is a further let-down for victims who've been failed repeatedly for decades."
Mr McGuinness acknowledged work remained outstanding on legacy issues and accused the UK government of "blocking" progress on disclosure.
"The legacy of the past remains a huge gap in this work," he said.
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers said: "Today's agreement is another step towards the Government's goal of building a brighter, more secure future for all the people of Northern Ireland."
The deal, which runs to almost 70 pages, has found a way to resolve the budgetary crisis caused by the failure to adopt the UK government's welfare changes.
A motion which would give Westminster the power to enact the controversial reforms of the benefits system will be debated during a specially-convened plenary session in the Stormont Assembly on Wednesday.
The Northern Ireland Executive will fund top-up schemes to support claimants losing out under the new welfare system.
Charlie Flanagan, Ireland's Minister for Foreign Affairs, described the deal as a "credible roadmap" to tackling ongoing paramilitarism and implement aspects of last December's stalled Stormont House Agreement.
"It underpins all our efforts to bring greater reconciliation and economic prosperity to the people of Northern Ireland and communities right across our island," he said.
Mr Flanagan said the Stormont parties would work to disband all paramilitary groups, their structures and to challenge their control of communities. An international body will be established to oversee those efforts.
The minister also said the Irish Government had given a commitment to part-fund the long-awaited upgrade of the A5 dual carriageway project.
The new focus on cross-border crime will be led by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), An Garda Siochana and revenue officers from both jurisdictions in a special task force.
Other elements of the agreement include m easures to address the issue of flags and parades and r eform of the Stormont Assembly - including its size, the number of departments and the use of the controversial "petition of concern" vote blocking mechanism.
Among Stormont's main five parties, only the sign-off of the two largest - the DUP and Sinn Fein - is required to implement the deal.
However, those two parties will be seeking the endorsement of the other three - the Ulster Unionists, SDLP and Alliance - to add greater legitimacy.
Their initial response offered the DUP and Sinn Fein little encouragement that support would be forthcoming.
Alliance Party Leader David Ford said the deal was another "false dawn for victims".
"This should not be a time for self-praise by anyone, particularly the DUP and Sinn Fein," he said.
"We wouldn't have been in this crisis in the first place if not for them and they should not be congratulated for getting back to doing their jobs and joining with others in governing Northern Ireland.
"At best this deal saves devolution from collapse, but Alliance is sceptical it will place the institutions on a sustainable basis, never mind offer a fresh start."
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said his party would not be "bounced or bullied" into signing up to the proposals.
He said they were presented to the party less than an hour before a meeting of the Stormont Executive was called on Tuesday afternoon to discuss them.
"The SDLP will assess and interrogate the DUP/Sinn Fein proposals," he said.
"We will not rush to judgment but our judgment will be clear and certain.
"The SDLP and the Alliance Party were given less than 60 minutes to read a DUP/Sinn Fein document over 60 pages long. We were then expected to enter an Executive meeting and sign up. That is no way to get an all-party agreement.
"The absence of comprehensive proposals on the past is a very serious failure."
US secretary of state John Kerry welcomed the deal.
He said: "The United States welcomes the announcement today of an agreement among Northern Ireland's political parties to strengthen Northern Ireland's devolved institutions.
"Northern Ireland's party leaders deserve credit for the considerable work and political courage they demonstrated to resolve difficult budgetary issues, implement institutional reforms outlined by the Stormont House Agreement, and develop a framework to counter residual paramilitaries.
"I commend the UK and Irish governments for patiently and steadfastly facilitating this successful outcome.
"I also urge all of Northern Ireland's political leaders to support and fully implement this agreement. It was carefully constructed to deliver better and sustainable governance, as well as to advance Northern Ireland's peace process for the benefit of all the people of the region.
"I strongly encourage the UK and Irish governments and all the parties to continue their vital work to deal effectively with the past by creating the institutions set out in the Stormont House Agreement.
"The United States will provide continued political support for Northern Ireland's peace process and for implementation of this accord. Moreover, my personal representative, Senator Gary Hart (Retired), will continue his deep engagement in support of a peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland."