Belfast Telegraph

Stormont talks: Northern Ireland political leaders agree deal on welfare and historic crimes

'Stormont House Agreement' criticised by Alliance Party, but staves off Assembly collapse

By Claire Cromie

Northern Ireland's political leaders have finally struck a deal on some of the disputes destabilising the powersharing administration at Stormont.

The deal - which has been called the Stormont House Agreement - comes after 100 hours of formal talks, which First Minister Peter Robinson described as "an exhausting period".

But he said the Executive had made a "monumental step forward".

"I believe the work carried out has been productive. We have a document presented by the governments, a three-stranded format agreed by the parties and a significant section dealing with financial matters," he said.

The agreement on key issues has been put to the Northern Ireland parties, who all "responded positively" and will now put it to their party structures for endorsement.

Mr Robinson said the 2015-16 budget had been drawn up "in a way that will allow the finance minister to put some money back into the departments and ease pressure".

Restructuring

"The restructuring and reform programme that we will advocate here in Northern Ireland will be the most ambitious any government or Executive has ever set upon in Northern Ireland," he said.

Announcing that corporation tax would be devolved via legislation put to Parliament in January, Mr Robinson said: "Corporation tax will probably go over the heads of many in our community, but it has the potential of bringing 50-60,000 jobs into Northern Ireland over the coming years."

The DUP leader condemned "those who will snipe on the sidelines" but said the agreement was "more than we've ever been able to (agree) on these issues".

He added: "Those if us who were not prepared to sign up to the Haass process will recognise that this is many times better."

The participants had long passed a deadline set by talks chair Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers, who insisted the 11 week process would not go beyond the early hours of this morning.

Parades and past

She said the Executive will be able to implement the Welfare Bill currently before the Assembly, financing its own adaptations of the new arrangements through the Block Grant.

There are new agreed arrangements on parades and the agreement includes an "entirely new and comprehensive approach to dealing with the past", which Ms Villiers said would "serve victims better and open the road to deeper eventual reconciliation"

She added: " The UK Government will contribute substantially to the cost."

"This is a reasonable and balanced agreement that opens the way to a more prosperous, stable and secured future for Northern Ireland. It responds to the wishes of the great majority of people in Northern Ireland, who clearly want their politicians to find an agreed way forward. I pay tribute to all those involved, who have shown real leadership and imagination.

“The parties have worked extremely hard, and responsibly, in seeking an agreed way forward, despite the strong feelings the issues under consideration sometimes give rise to. The Irish Government have worked alongside us and the parties, respecting the 3-stranded approach, in the most positive and constructive way. The US Government, and in particular Senator Hart and Consul Greg Burton, have provided very helpful support and advice. My own colleagues in Government, especially the PM and Chancellor, have engaged closely, and offered a quite exceptional financial settlement, recognising the seriousness of the issues at stake.

“When it is endorsed, the Agreement, and the accompanying very generous financial arrangements, open the way for the Executive to put its finances back onto a stable footing. Without that, there would have been a continuing threat to political stability and public services."

In a message on Twitter, Prime Minister David Cameron said: "I am delighted that a workable agreement has been reached that can allow Northern Ireland to enjoy a brighter, more prosperous future."

Sinn Fein: 'Remarkable'

Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said the deal had the potential to give the Executive a "fresh start".

"And it is a fresh start we need to seize with both hands," he said.

Flanked by party leader Gerry Adams, Mr McGuinness hailed the fact that agreement had been reached on long standing issues of division between the region's politicians.

"I think it's been a remarkable achievement," he said.

Alliance: Agreement 'Falls short'

The Alliance Party has agreed to the implementation of the 'Heads of Agreement' document - which can be read here - but expressed concern at the number of issues that still need resolved.

Leader David Ford said: "This deal falls short of Alliance's ambitions and the expectations of the public. It is not the comprehensive Agreement we wanted, but appears to be the only deal other parties would agree to.

"We do have real concerns that some of the issues that prevent us sharing our community have received only partial solutions, or have been entirely passed on to other processes. People will ask why some parties think they will be able to reach agreements in January that they couldn't manage over the last two years.

"On parades, the can has been kicked down the road again, right into the middle of another contentious marching season. Alliance has long called for a consistent Northern Ireland-wide policy to settle the divisive issue of flags, but this has not yet been achieved. These issues have poisoned the political atmosphere, created community tension and cost a fortune in policing and lost opportunities. If not dealt with properly, they could unravel the agreement that has been reached.

"The reforms to the political institutions, while worthy in themselves, fall far short of the reboot that is needed if the institutions are to deliver for people. There is no reason to delay the reduction in the number of MLAs.

"People are fed up and cynical about under performing political institutions, festering disagreements between political parties, and broken promises. They will want to see full implementation of this agreement, speedy resolution of the other outstanding issues, and an end to the slagging match of recent months.

UUP: 'Transformational'

Ulster Unionist Party Leader Mike Nesbitt said: “When we pressed Sinn Féin last week to tell us who they wanted to protect from Welfare Reform and how they wanted to do it, they finally produced their Wish List and lo and behold, it was a set of proposals we could support and which the Executive could afford without further assistance from Westminster, which was clearly never going to happen.

“This financial package is not only transformational, it comes in an agreement that makes possible the devolution of Corporation Tax, something that was an Ulster Unionist idea, and which remains the one game-changing policy lever that can rebalance our economy and significantly grow the private sector.

“Some are worried about the cost to the Block Grant of lowering Corporation Tax in Northern Ireland but we believe the sale of Belfast Harbour would go a very long way to paying for it and the Prime Minister granted our request that the full proceeds could be retained by the Executive, rather than having to offer 50% of the sale price back to HM Treasury.

“The Agreement goes beyond finances and what is immediately clear is the recognition there were no negotiations around parades. The issue of the past has also been addressed in a manner that moves the debate well beyond the failed Hass proposals.

SDLP: 'Major disappointment'

SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell said: "for all the efforts, the outcome is not comprehensive".

He praised the progress on the budget and welfare, but said Troubles victims and survivors suffered greatly.

“The SDLP presented a series of papers to the talks on the unfinished work of past agreements. The absence of action on the Finucane Inquiry, on the Bill of Rights, the Irish Language Act, a Civic Forum for Northern Ireland and the island, and other issues, means the opportunity is lost to better and decisively shape politics and the rights of our people.

“On parades, there is an uncertain process with an uncertain outcome in an uncertain electoral period. In the coming months, parades will require wisdom and boldness, lacking in the negotiation over the last ten weeks.

“The SDLP will very quickly speak to our party members, victims and survivors and others who have a right to hear from us and who we need to hear from. Our approach will be very clear – both acknowledge and agree with what is strong in today’s outcome but not deny what is weak."

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