Belfast Telegraph

Cameron welcomes Stormont Agreement

political agreement on a range of disputes that had undermined powersharing in Northern Ireland has left the region facing a brighter and more prosperous future, the Prime Minister has said.

David Cameron hailed the deal that emerged from marathon negotiations in Belfast involving the Executive's five parties and the UK and Irish governments.

The 'Stormont House Agreement', forged after 11 weeks' of discussions, has resolved destabilising wrangles over the administration's budget and its non-implementation of welfare reforms while establishing new structures to deal with the legacy of unsolved Troubles killings.

It achieved less progress on other vexed disputes over the flying of flags and parading, but did set out new processes to examine how to find solutions to those matters in the future.

Much of the plan has been facilitated with a 2.4 billion euro financial package from the UK government - an offer that combines some new money from the Treasury with enhanced borrowing access and flexibility.

While the blueprint awaits the formal sign off from some of the parties' governing structures, significantly it has been endorsed by the key figures in the lead parties in the administration, the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein.

"I am delighted that a workable agreement has been reached that can allow Northern Ireland to enjoy a brighter, more prosperous future, while at the same time finally being able to deal with its past," said Mr Cameron.

"This agreement means the UK Government has been able to offer a significant financial package that opens the way for more prosperity, stability and economic security for Northern Ireland."

First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson acknowledged that further work would be required on a number of the issues.

"Of course every one of us would have liked to have had a more comprehensive and complete agreement but this is as much and more than we have ever been able to do on these issues in the past," he said.

"So it is a very significant agreement."

Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said the deal had the potential to give the Executive a "fresh start".

"And it is a fresh start we need to seize with both hands," he said.

Flanked by party leader Gerry Adams, Mr McGuinness hailed the fact that agreement had been reached on long standing issues of division between the region's politicians.

"I think it's been a remarkable achievement," he said

Significantly, the deal has found a resolution to the thorny and long running impasse over welfare reform implementation in the region. Essentially, it overcomes nationalist concerns by enabling the Executive to establish and finance its own top-up fund to support those who will lose benefits when the policies are introduced.

The dispute, and accompanying multi-million pound Treasury penalties for non-implementation, had threatened the future of the institutions.

While the Executive is still facing a hefty penalty to cover the period when reforms have not been in operation, the sum is much reduced on the 250 million plus euro bill it was facing.

On wider budgetary problems facing the Executive, the deal will enable ministers to balance the budget in the coming financial year.

Around 900 million euro of the loan facility will be used to fund a major public sector restructuring reform programme, which includes a voluntary redundancy scheme.

This proposal is part of efforts to rebalance an economy traditionally over-reliant on the state.

On the other side of the equation, the Executive has also been granted the power to set its own rates of corporation tax in an effort to stimulate private sector growth.

This will enable it to better compete for foreign direct investment with the much lower rate of business tax in operation in the Republic of Ireland.

The document also sets out steps to trim the size of the powersharing institutions, by reducing both the number of Executive departments and Assembly members.

In regard to the past, new mechanisms, supported by 190 million euro of the Government's package, will be established to take on investigations into historic Troubles killings. These will take on the responsibilities of the police and the police ombudsman. Legacy inquests will remain under the remit of the coroners' courts.

Less progress has been achieved in regard to disputes over parades and the flying of flags but the agreement does set out future ways of potentially finding resolutions to both issues.

The process culminated with a final 30 hour round of negotiations that saw politicians talk through the night at Stormont House.

The discussions were chaired by Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers. Irish foreign affairs minister Charlie Flanagan was also involved throughout.

Mr Cameron and Irish premier Taoiseach Enda Kenny took part in an intensive session of talks in Belfast earlier this month.

Mr Kenny said the promise of a brighter future for all of the people of Northern Ireland had prevailed.

"I commend the parties for their courage in reaching this agreement," he said.

"Its full implementation will mean that the people of Northern Ireland can look to that brighter future together, with hope and confidence.

"The Irish government will fully support the Northern Ireland Executive as it takes this important work forward."

Labour party leader Ed Miliband said: "I welcome many aspects of an agreement which has the potential to put the process of building a better future for Northern Ireland back on track.

"We will continue to work with the two governments and Northern Ireland's political leaders to maintain stability and tackle the inequality which continues to be the breeding ground for division and extremism in Northern Ireland."

Mr McGuinness said 630,000 euro of the new money offered by the Treasury will go towards supporting shared and integrated education in the region.

He added: "I am hopeful, very hopeful as a result of our deliberations over the course of the last short while. I want this to be a fresh start.

"We have always been very positive and constructive in every negotiation we have been involved in and we are going to continue to do that and we are going to continue to ensure that the implementation of what we have agreed gets our best efforts and gets a result for the most important people of all - the people who are out on the streets crying for leadership from the politicians."

Mr Robinson said he felt the agreement was balanced.

"The important thing about the document is it is not an agenda for nationalists or republicans or for unionists," he said.

"It is an agenda for better government in Northern Ireland, a better way to do things in Northern Ireland."

Of the three smaller Executive parties, Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said he would present the proposals to his party's executive to decide whether to officially sign up to the deal.

But he hailed the financial elements of the blueprint as "transformative".

"This financial package is not only transformational, it comes in an agreement that makes possible the devolution of corporation tax, something that was an Ulster Unionist idea, and which remains the one game-changing policy lever that can rebalance our economy and significantly grow the private sector," he said.

SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell, who also said he needed to canvas the views of party faithful before signing up, said while the agreement had some strong points it also had significant weaknesses.

"The SDLP will very quickly speak to our party members, victims and survivors and others who have a right to hear from us and who we need to hear from," he said.

"Our approach will be very clear - both acknowledge and agree with what is strong in today's outcome but not deny what is weak. We will work with other parties in the Assembly and Executive to build on the strong. We will work to make better those elements that are weak."

Alliance leader David Ford said his party had agreed to implement the agreement but said it fell short of community expectation.

"The Alliance Party has agreed to the implementation of the Heads of Agreement document produced as a result of talks between the five Executive parties and the two governments, but the party has expressed concern at the number of issues that remain to be resolved in the New Year," he said.

"Left unaddressed, these will continue to undermine political stability and economic opportunities, and Alliance believes parties must be held to account for their commitments to resolve these outstanding issues.

"This deal falls short of Alliance's ambitions and the expectations of the public. It is not the comprehensive Agreement we wanted, but appears to be the only deal other parties would agree to."

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