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Stormont leaders' body language suggests all may not be lost yet

By Liam Clarke

Published 20/08/2015

New Victims’ Commissioner Judith Thompson is announced at Stormont Castle by First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness last month - a sign that the two political leaders can work together on important issues
New Victims’ Commissioner Judith Thompson is announced at Stormont Castle by First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness last month - a sign that the two political leaders can work together on important issues

Is there a chance of a deal next month that will keep Stormont on the road until next year's election? Logic suggests not - one or more players would have to turn turtle - but there have been some straws in the wind, and things are seldom entirely logical here.

A replacement was picked for Sammy Wilson in the Assembly, which could have waited a while to see if there is likely to be an Assembly. Mr Wilson gave up the seat to devote his time to Westminster because of a change of rule, but he needn't have done so yet.

What he is doing is ensuring his replacement, Gordon Lyons, has good time to work himself in before the election next May.

This month I also had a chance to interview both Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness. Whereas neither was saying that it was in the bag, there was a generally upbeat tone.

Mr Robinson felt there was no real appetite for scrapping Stormont despite widespread cynicism about the slowness of decision-making. "If the Assembly collapses, people will be protesting for it to be brought back within a year. They will see a difference if they have to pay water charges, see tuition fees rising to the level of the rest of the UK, when welfare payments here are the same as in England."

He was listing cash-raising measures that central Government imposes in England, but not here. It is fairly obvious that if the entire budget was handed back to Westminster, then it would introduce these measures here.

Without Stormont we would also lose the ability to "top up" welfare payments for the worse-off.

Mr Robinson thinks this is a bad moment for any party, even Sinn Fein, to walk and hand over complete control to a Tory administration.

On the other hand, he thinks it is a good moment to look at reforming Stormont by scrapping petitions of concern for financial issues. These petitions allow any 30 MLAs to sign a petition that stops a measure from passing unless it gains the support of a majority of nationalists and unionists voting separately. This effectively gives a veto to the DUP, and also to Sinn Fein if it can get the support of one or two MLAs from other parties.

"We need a mechanism to break logjams," Mr Robinson said. "Vetoes on financial issues bring the Assembly to a halt. If there are matters of community interest it is possible to have a veto, but when you start dealing with financial matters and the running of the budget and how departments are allocated funds, things grind to a halt."

It provides food for thought, the beginning of a graduated reduction in blocking mechanisms.

A deal would also be helped by more money from the British Government, but it has ruled out topping up our welfare budget so that it is more generous than the British system.

Mr McGuinness speaks of the need for the Government to be "creative and imaginative and flexible" and says he thinks it is considering this.

It could mean paying money to deal with the past up front: that would release some Assembly resources, but we would have to be agreed on how the money would be spent first. It could mean allowing us to draw down capital budgets. It could mean the Government paying for the public sector exit scheme, probably via a low interest loan, and allowing us to show a profit on that fairly quickly.

Neither the First nor Deputy First Ministers wanted to give their hands away, but sounded hopeful and determined to keep talking.

As Mr McGuinness sees it: "The fact that Peter Robinson and I have appointed Judith Thompson as the new Victims' Commissioner a couple of weeks ago sent out a very clear signal within the victims' groups that we need to push on with this business to ensure that victims' needs are being satisfactorily met."

Things will go quiet for a couple of weeks now, but that is what they are working on. Success isn't guaranteed.

Belfast Telegraph

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