Belfast Telegraph

Stormont crisis talks: Deal done, but there's still blanks to be filled

Key issues outstanding as settlement staves off crisis

By Noel McAdam

The crisis threatening the future of Stormont has been averted in a £2bn deal covering most - but not all - of the contentious gaps between the parties.

The multi-million pound Christmas box agreed yesterday includes a financial package of £500m for shared and integrated education, £150m for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles, and enhanced access to loans for capital and infrastructure projects.

Ultimately, the agreement hammered out by the parties was less comprehensive than they and the British and Irish governments had hoped. It was the result of a final push of almost 30 hours of hot-house negotiations following 11 weeks of talks where the progress at times appeared to be glacial.

And while the deal may be valued at £2bn, it doesn't mean that threatened government spending cuts have gone away.

Among the key agreements yesterday was a new year 'slimming' resolution, cutting MLA numbers from 108 to 90 - although this won't happen until the Assembly election after next in 2021 - and reducing Stormont departments from 12 to nine.

In return, Westminster will honour its pledge to push ahead with the devolution of corporation tax, which won't come into effect until 2017, and the commitment of £700m in "flexibilities" for a Civil Service redundancy scheme to reduce a top-heavy public sector.

In a rare burst of seasonal goodwill, the Executive parties finally achieved a breakthrough in agreeing two new bodies for dealing with the legacy of the past. However, the substance of this was already outlined in proposals drawn up by American diplomat Dr Richard Haass exactly a year ago.

A new independent body, the Historical Investigations Unit, is to be established to take forward outstanding investigations into Troubles-related deaths which were formerly the domain of the police and the Police Ombudsman. In line with proposals outlined in the Haass talks, another new body, the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval, will be established to enable people to seek and privately receive information about the Troubles-related deaths of their next of kin.

Inquests into Troubles-related deaths are to remain under the remit of the coroners' courts.

In addition, the Executive is also to set up an 'Oral History Archive' by 2016 to provide a central place for people from all backgrounds to share experiences and narratives related to the Troubles.

There was a measure of progress, albeit rather small, on other key bones of contention, including both parading and flags, which the Haass process was unable to resolve.

Finding solutions to these issues remains a key imperative, now that the promised panel of inquiry aimed at resolving the north Belfast parade stand-off has been scrapped and another fraught marching season looms.

One agreed proposal is to establish by June of next year a 15-strong Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition, which will be charged with reporting its findings within 18 months.

The agreement struck yesterday also shed some light on a post-Parades Commission scenario, concluding that responsibility for rulings on parades and related protests should ultimately be devolved to the Assembly.

On the vexed issue of introducing welfare reforms in Northern Ireland, there is a mixture of carrot and stick. The Treasury's £117m fine over the failure to implement the system already operating in GB remains but the Executive has been offered an incentive to reduce it by up to half.

Although a deal was done yesterday, there are concerns the consensus achieved against the self-imposed Christmas deadline may not last long as the parties move into election mode for the Westminster ballot in May. And there are disappointments on the nationalist side as the talks produced no agreement on the long sought-after Irish Language Act or on a Bill of Rights.

What now?

The three smaller Executive parties - Ulster Unionists, SDLP and Alliance - have major reservations about the details of the agreement, but the DUP and Sinn Fein have a majority in the Executive and the Assembly to push the deal through. Both the two main parties made clear last night they intend to recommend the package to their respective parties, and it is unlikely either will be rebuffed.

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