Belfast Telegraph

Stormont deal: No hurrahs, just a feeling that we've been here before

By Malachi O'Doherty

There is less guff in the air about the new deal, the Stormont House agreement, as it is called.

Even that bland name suggests that someone had the wit to sidestep the danger of it being the Christmas agreement.

There is one thing that most people here are mightily sick of, and that is the fondness of political party leaders for patting themselves on the back and boasting about the global importance of their historic peace-making endeavours.

The trajectory from the agreement of April 1998 has been towards increasing disillusionment. Back then, many of us were euphoric. It seemed that a miracle had indeed been wrought.

By St Andrews in 2007 we were all more stoical. When the deal was done a common reaction was to marvel that it had seemed so easy in the end. People said, it makes you wonder what all the fuss was about.

If Messrs Robinson and McGuinness thought the rest of us were sitting up all night, spiritually connected to their heroic efforts, they were wrong.

Yet we have an agreement, if not one that has been attended by huge enthusiasm. The party leaders are not hugging each other. They know better than any of us that past agreements were essentially failures, or they would not have been back to try again. And they know that they have not completed the job this time either. One of the most trite formulations that breath was ever wasted on is the principle that nothing is agreed in peace processing until everything is agreed.

For we are still not at a point at which we can relax into ordinary politics and stop this breast beating, self examination, agonising over past responsibility and current identity.

The legacy of the other agreements is the lesson that progress is slow and incremental. It is that mistakes are made - serious mistakes - in the ardour of all-night negotiations and that some things are best, for now, just passed on to someone else to worry about.

The calamitous hole in the middle of the Good Friday Agreement was the failure to commit the IRA to decommissioning. That led to a further seven years of talks and deadlocks. It took yet another two years beyond that to commit republicans to supporting the police.

Then, at St Andrews, the two main parties, Sinn Fein and the DUP, were allowed to prioritise their own interests over community reconciliation when the rules were changed to appointing First and Deputy First Ministers by party rather than community.

But by then, Blair would have given them anything to get completion. He would readily have let Sinn Fein govern here without their assenting to the PSNI. You can imagine how that would have worked - it wouldn't.

So, today we have another set of deals that address some of the problems but not all, and which, in most cases, defers the solution by passing the questions of reconciliation and culture to academics to think about.

Responsibility for parades is the exception and is passed to the Assembly. And you have to wonder: are they mad? Why do they want it? They have had to farm out the past and culture. Why do they imagine they can handle the parades disputes better themselves when they can manage so little else?

We are to have a smaller Stormont, even possibly an Opposition. The parties will have to review the ill-used Petition of Concern device, through which even the sanctioning of an errant minister has been thwarted. But they get to decide on whether or how to change it themselves.

Two bodies will look at the legacy of the past and the British government commits to being frank and helpful.

No such commitment is available from any of the paramilitary groups. When Mairia Cahill sought disclosure on child abuse by IRA members, Gerry Adams said that no corporate entity now exists which could provide such information. So Sinn Fein agreeing to a process on the past may prove to be as meaningless as their commitment to decommissioning was in the Good Friday Agreement - something to be earnestly wished for, but for which they took no responsibility at all.

Nothing here assures the close observer that these parties won't be back into hot-house negotiations again on many of these same issues.

But perhaps not everyone will be disheartened by the Stormont House Agreement. It will, at least, function for a few years as a job creation scheme for academics, archivists and investigators.

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