Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

Hillsborough Agreement raises more questions than it answers

The Hillsborough deal is done, but is it really a done deal? I ask that question upon reading the agreement because the arrangement for the transfer of justice and policing is about the only certainty I can find within its carefully crafted wording.

So much else — from somehow coming to grips with contentious parades to kick-starting Stormont — depends on further discussion, more debate and a level of agreement which has so far eluded everyone.

We have a working group to examine parades and to arrive at a consensus in three weeks on issues which have defied determination by some of the best brains in the country over many years.

We have another all-party working group aimed at making Stormont function better — a belated recognition of its considerable failings to date.

We have a working group to unblock the pipeline of legislation. We even have a working group to pick through the St Andrews Agreement and mop up outstanding issues.

In short, Hillsborough has thrown up working groups here, there and everywhere, ensuring there will be much talking between the parties for weeks and months ahead.

But what price agreement? Aside from justice and policing, the Hillsborough document highlights just how many problems exist at Stormont with no surety that they can be fixed.

While Sinn Fein has no real electoral worries, these promise to be testing times for Peter Robinson and his party and unionism in general. Fears. Concerns. Suspicions. Worries. All have surfaced yet again during the Hillsborough talks.

I doubt if nationalists and republicans can fathom the depths of unionist unease and uncertainty. Why, they may ask, should unionists still be of such a nervous political disposition, 12 years after the Good Friday Agreement, and 1,000 days into the Stormont Executive?

Hillsborough has reminded many unionists that the peace process is not the final solution. The politics of devolution have become an ongoing, unending process.

No sooner is one demand |satisfied than the next one rears its head. There is no line drawn in the sand, only another stepping stone, or staging post, along the way.

Many unionists hoped the Good Friday Agreement would end polarised politics for good. Sinn Fein, without the guns of the IRA behind them, would become an impotent rejected force. The nationalist community would rally behind the SDLP as the true architect of the Good Friday deal.

Instead, unionists face a dominant, relaxed republican movement with impressively articulate and increasingly confident leaders. Martin McGuinness — First Minister-in-waiting — wins out in the popularity stakes while Peter Robinson is not gifted with charisma and has not his personal sorrows to seek.

Unless Hillsborough really changes relationships at Stormont, the Executive will remain a recipe for ongoing political instability.

Devolution remains shaky because, fundamentally, the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein have two distinct cultural, economic, educational and constitutional agendas. Has the Hillsborough experience really changed any of that? I doubt it.

The real bone of contention in this community is not the transfer of policing and justice. It is the failure of Stormont to operate efficiently and effectively and to agree on anything of substance.

How can Stormont really work if people cannot shake hands, if there is constant sniping at minority parties and, above all, if there is no constructive opposition other than the media?

The Ulster Unionists, SDLP and Alliance should have raised their voices earlier, but they acquiesced in the Executive.

They will argue that they could not be seen to bring down power-sharing. Regrettably they have allowed themselves to be submerged in a dysfunctional Stormont.

Sir Reg Empey and the Ulster Unionists need to raise their game and the new leader of the SDLP must exert more influence.

Martin McGuinness, in abolishing the 11-Plus, and Caitriona Ruane, in refusing to countenance any form of selection to replace it, offended middle-class, grammar school voters.

Many of these people were strong supporters of the Good Friday deal, but the 11-Plus debacle has spoken unhelpful volumes in their ears. Hillsborough has changed nothing for them on issues such as education.

Many people have lost trust and respect in politics because of the expenses scandal, double-jobbing and even the level of secrecy surrounding the Hillsborough negotiations. Surely politics in Northern Ireland should be conducted in a more open and transparent manner?

The parties at Hillsborough refused to tell the people what they were talking about behind closed doors. The public and the media were cut completely out of the loop and left to stand outside in the freezing cold.

We have heard politicians telling us that it is not our business to know until they decide. We have had the people in their thousands responding by saying it is their right to know.

Arrogant. This is a word that comes to mind when I think of the performance of some politicians over the past fortnight at Hillsborough.

At times, they seemed to misjudge the strength of feeling within the Northern Ireland community. Some behaved more like commissars from a bygone communist state than exemplars of open democracy today.

This is a watershed moment for devolution. The unionist community appears unnerved and unsettled, divided and disillusioned.

Peter Robinson, Sir Reg Empey and their parties have their work cut out to build confidence in the community they serve. The SDLP has to raise a louder voice in the nationalist community, or be swept aside by Sinn Fein.

Either the Stormont Executive finds a way to move ahead more confidently and decisively than it has in the past 1,000 days, or it could drown in a sea of discontent.

Hillsborough raised more questions than it answered.

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