'Second chance' for Northern Ireland devolution hangs in balance
The promise of a ‘second chance’ for Stormont hangs in the balance today as the parties attempt to finalise a deal and complete devolution.
After the most intense negotiations in their history, the DUP and Sinn Fein appear close to agreement which, with the transfer of control over policing, prisons and the courts, will finish the constitutional jigsaw started with the Good Friday Agreement 12 years ago.
But, facing unprecedented levels of criticism from an increasingly sceptical public, politicians across the spectrum know they need to prove the Assembly and Executive can work and re-connect with voters.
At the start of a second week of negotiations, the parties are expected to return to Hillsborough this morning and work to complete a comprehensive agreement, which is to include: a firm date for the handover of policing and justice powers, a more localised and “enhanced” procedure for dealing with parades, a final decision on the revamp of councils, protection for the Irish language and go-ahead for a blueprint to tackle sectarianism.
The parties hope the final package, which could also include a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, will encourage the public to give devolution a ‘second chance’ after the repeated disappointments over recent months.
But Sinn Fein and the DUP, in particular, will have to go out to sell the deal in their respective communities, which could take several more weeks.
Senior Sinn Fein negotiator Gerry Kelly said — apart from a date for the transfer of responsibility from Westminster, a totemic issue for republicans — the aim was a “better relationship” with the institutions.
He told BBC Radio Ulster's Inside Politics: “It could be another small watershed in terms of moving the whole process forward.”
Senior DUP negotiator Sammy Wilson said some of the more difficult issues had been resolved and he hoped a deal could be completed today.
But he prepared his own constituency for compromises, saying: “Everybody has had to be be flexible, that's the whole point of negotiations.
“No one party can be expected to get all it wants.”
The Finance Minister said his negotiation team would first want to consult the party and then with the wider community, which he hoped could be done in the next four to five weeks, “because that's the only way in which it will stick”.
After more than 100 hours of almost continuous talks the parties took yesterday off. The DUP could not to attend meetings on a Sunday anyway.
The gap also gave officials in Belfast, Dublin and London time to prepare final texts which the party's are expected to see today.
Mr McGuinness also sounded an upbeat note yesterday. Speaking at the annual Bloody Sunday commemorations, he said: “Institutions which don't deliver are worthless and something I will not be involved in.
“I now hope we have a basis upon which nationalists, republicans, unionists and loyalists will move forward together on the basis of partnership and equality.”
Mr Brown and Mr Cowen could return for the second time in less than a week to herald a deal, but may also stay away to allow the parties to take credit — and ownership — of the deal.