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Stormont Fresh Start: Sticking plaster approach to a festering wound will not suffice

The DUP-Sinn Fein agreement promises a 'Fresh Start', but this latest tinkering with the Good Friday Agreement is largely a smoke-and-mirrors exercise, writes Michael HC McDowell in Washington DC

Published 25/11/2015

First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness sign the copy of the document 'A Fresh Start - The Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan'
First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness sign the copy of the document 'A Fresh Start - The Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan'
Prime Minister David Cameron (left) welcomes Taoiseach Enda Kenny to 10 Downing Street in London

The so-called "agreement" between the DUP and Sinn Fein last week - and it is those two parties alone which have agreed, not, please note, the other three parties in the Executive - is a weak attempt to respond to the serious, medium-to-long-term problems of the Government of Northern Ireland.

The devil is in the detail and much is, yet again, promised but not delivered, so claims that this "consolidates the peace... secures stability... enables progress... and offers hope" are aspirational only.

A Fresh Start is yet another sticking plaster on the failing body of the Good Friday Agreement. It gets us only past the May 2016 election while continuing to guarantee generous salaries and benefits for ministers, MLAs, party political advisers and others for another four to five years.

Similarly, Peter Robinson's announced resignation as First Minister, many months ahead, does not mean root-and-branch change in the ailing governance of the province.

This latest crisis grew out of the two paramilitary-related murders of 'Jock' Davison and Kevin McGuigan, but, importantly, the "new" version of the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) proposed to handle such outrages is entirely shorn of the old IMC's key power - ie, to recommend a party's exclusion from Government for breaches of the Mitchell Principles of non-violence.

Clearly, Sinn Fein insisted on this exclusion and the DUP acquiesced in it, returning with unseemly speed to its ministries and perks, and we now are to have an IMC Mk II without teeth.

Plus, the new IMC is to meet only once a year, it seems. Yes, we have several provisions in A Fresh Start for more PSNI/Garda co-operation on cross-border organised crime, paramilitary excesses and so on, but this should already be ongoing.

This is expected in a democratic society - especially 17 years on.

The gaping holes in this latest document are lack of provisions for victims and the past, which are once more kicked into the long grass, plus much talk but no action and much foot-dragging on flags and parades.

Yes, there is mention of reducing the truly excessive number of MLAs (108), but not until after the May election. Why wait?

Work was supposedly being done on this, but it seems politically convenient to keep the gravy train full for several more five-year terms.

No wonder the public mood is sour on politicians.

Yes, too, there is mention of reducing the number of ministers/departments from - for a small jurisdiction like Northern Ireland - 12 to nine. But when will this happen? By the May election? We shall see.

What odds does one place on firmly ring-fencing the illegitimate use of Assembly petitions of concern, which have been ordered up for utterly cynical purposes by the DUP and SF just recently? That is one particular get-out-of-jail-free option the two big parties will be loath to give up.

True, an official Opposition is talked about, but the details in this 67-page document are frustratingly vague on how that is to come about or to operate effectively.

As for the reduction in corporation tax to match the Republic's 12.5%, be careful what you wish for. Serious economists are warning that the massive loss in tax revenue will need to be quickly made up in domestic and foreign investment - and this in a climate of slow growth globally, competition with the Republic and a mediocre record of job creation in Northern Ireland, with emphasis on job "announcements" but fuzzy maths on job losses.

This tax cut is almost two-and-a-half years ahead and any consequent holes in the NI Budget could badly damage the already-precarious economic well-being of the poorest in the community, who are already endangered by London-mandated welfare cuts.

A hefty cut in corporation tax is not a panacea for making Northern Ireland into the South Korea of Western Europe. And the US and the European Commission are not impressed by the Republic's arguments that its low corporation tax is "fair".

The gridlock in the Executive and Assembly will inevitably return because the 1998 Good Friday Agreement is just not fit-for-purpose any longer and this latest tinkering agreed by the DUP and Sinn Fein is largely a smoke-and-mirrors exercise.

The current Executive and Assembly will sooner rather than later come to a point of no return, because the functionaries of both the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland Civil Service are entrenched against reform that could create genuine power-sharing, not the current, sordid divvying-up of power by the DUP and Sinn Fein.

It is high time to change the frozen thinking in London, Dublin and Belfast, who are victims of "policy paralysis". Policy paralysis is a term applied to bureaucracies, which, once they carefully build a new policy or system, are intellectually and administratively "paralysed" or "captured" by it and refuse to alter course - even in the face of chronic dysfunction.

In short, even when the policy is obviously no longer working as intended or is about to collapse, the officials responsible take the same actions over and over again, foolishly expecting different results each time, rather than radically reforming the failing policy.

The repeated and worsening deadlock is a classic case of policy paralysis. It is the triumph of hope over experience, tinkering with the wheezing 17-year-old Good Friday Agreement car, when the only solution is to change the engine, not just replace the gearbox, buy new tyres, try a different brand of petrol or oil, or replace the battery.

Let Enda Kenny and David Cameron have their officials order up a new reformed Good Friday Agreement fit for purpose not only for 2015/2016, but a decade ahead and which stipulates a voluntary (not compulsory) coalition of parties in the Executive.

If the local parties can't agree then they should be told there will be direct rule from London or a diluted form of joint-authority with Dublin, and that their bloated numbers, salaries and expenses are ended.

London and Dublin can put together a package including a code of collective Cabinet responsibility for ministers so that corrupt or maverick heads of departments can be ousted by a weighted majority in the Executive.

Let us have a designated leader of the official Opposition in the Assembly and an Opposition with real powers to hold ministers to account and probe and issue subpoenas for testimony, for example, on paramilitary breaches or on issues such as Nama.

In addition, let the British and Irish governments keep the option of putting such a political package to the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum, as was successfully done in 1998.

Or let London and Dublin hold a Northern Ireland election on the package on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

It is, indeed, time for a "fresh start" - not the stale offering of last week.

  • Michael HC McDowell is an international affairs consultant and former Northern Ireland journalist who has worked in Cambridge, Massachusetts, New York City, Toronto and Washington DC, where he has lived since 1988

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