Belfast Telegraph

The Cameron deal is no magic bullet, but it is a step forward. And now it's up to the Executive to make it work

An Assembly that ducks or blocks key decisions will not be quick enough on its feet to handle the responsibilities this package will bring, says Liam Clarke

It is easy to pick holes in this package; nobody will be entirely satisfied by it. Yet there is no denying that it marks joined-up thinking and that it moves things forward. We will require outside support to maintain the momentum.

It is a considerable achievement to get the DUP, Sinn Fein and the British Prime Minister to all sign on the dotted line. Better still their signatures are on a detailed agreement, entitled Building a Prosperous and United Community, which explicitly links economic growth to a more shared society.

Theresa Villiers, the Secretary of State, must take some credit for pulling these threads together. Expectations weren't high when she arrived, she had little track record on Northern Ireland and many regarded this as a punishment posting for her. But it must be acknowledged that she did hit the ground running and, in the nine months she has been here she has managed to produce something credible.

The agreement benefited from outside involvement. For a long time David Cameron seemed to have put Northern Ireland in the box marked "sorted" and generally left matters to the Executive and NIO. Squabbling over issues like marching and flags filled the vacuum and created uncertainty among potential investors and visitors.

Now Mr Cameron has re-engaged. President Barack Obama (below) has also helped with the choreography, encouraging the local parties to sort out problems in his St Patrick's Day message.

Bringing the president and the other G8 leaders here created a deadline of sorts for yesterday's agreement. Mr Cameron's plan to call a "G8-branded" trade and investment conference in October is another date to help focus minds. There will be a report on progress issued then and getting a good one provides an incentive for the DUP and Sinn Fein to ensure that the marching season passes peacefully.

The package isn't perfect. Integrated education or housing is never mentioned. Instead there are offers of loans, £100m over two years, to fund shared education and housing schemes. Former army barracks and disused military housing estates are also being offered for these purposes.

That means we are settling for a round of school and house building which will still keep the communities separated, albeit clustered around shared facilities. That is something that we should seek to improve and build on to create a genuinely integrated society. Sharing things out cannot be our final destination.

The agreement is obviously an achievement for Sinn Fein and the DUP but it is also a challenge to them.

The underlying theme of the document is that, as Peter Robinson put it, "the way forward for Northern Ireland is to become less dependent, to grow our economy, to stimulate our economy, to create jobs in Northern Ireland".

The Executive is to be given power to borrow money. It is to have more tax-raising powers devolved to it but it will have to balance its own budget when this happens.

It will also have to answer to the voters if it increases taxes or cuts spending so that it can reduce taxation.

That requires a new level of political maturity as well as quicker decision-making at the Executive if it is to work.

An Assembly where every divisive vote is blocked by petitions of concern or ducked altogether will not be able to handle taxation or borrowing. It will not be quick enough on its feet to make timely decisions and it will inevitably waste time and money.

So we still need outside help from friendly governments, sticks as well as carrots, to bring us to the next stage.

Belfast Telegraph


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