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Stormont's 'fresh start': £600m is set aside in agreement to save power-sharing

First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness address the media
First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness address the media
Secretary of State Theresa Villiers and Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan
TUV leader Jim Allister

By Noel McAdam

A "sticking plaster" deal to save Stormont from collapse has been hammered out to give the ailing Assembly the prospect of a "fresh start".

The agreement resolves one of the main stalemates of recent years - the implementation of welfare reform - and will see a £500m injection of new money from the Government to pay for a range of initiatives including dismantling the peace walls.

The DUP and Sinn Fein, agreed the 67-page blueprint yesterday, but the three other Executive parties, the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and Alliance, have yet to sign up.

Prime Minister David Cameron said, however, the new document was "an important turning point" for the province. "It secures sustainability for the Northern Ireland budget, sets out how we'll deal with paramilitary groups, and could provide a basis for a shared future for Northern Ireland," he added.

First Minister Peter Robinson said the range of measures would make Stormont "fit for purpose". And referring to the paramilitarism that led to his ministers' partial withdrawal from the Executive, he added: "This agreement commits all parties to call for and work together to achieve the disbandment of all paramilitary organisations and their structures, and to accept no authority, direction or control on our political activities other than our democratic mandate."

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said the deal represented a "step change" which could change the image of the Assembly among the general public. "That's got to change and we are the only people who can change it," he added.

The Irish Government has also pledged an additional €110m over the next four years, which should help complete the long-delayed A5 road in the west and finance a new cross-border crime task force.

London's £500m - on top of the £2bn in loans promised in the Stormont House Agreement last December - will also include £160m for the PSNI and a youth employment scheme.

A three-strong panel is to be appointed by the New Year to produce a report next May containing recommendations on how the disbandment of republican and loyalist paramilitary groups can be achieved.

The Executive is also to publish an action plan by the middle of next year aimed at reducing community divisions and tackling sectarianism and racism.

The deal, called A Fresh Start: the Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan will plug the black hole at the centre of the Executive's Budget for the first time in a year, with funding announcements likely today.

To cushion the impact of welfare changes, ministers have agreed to top up national funding by £585m over the next four years, with a review in 2018/19.

A small working group that will be chaired by benefits expert Professor Eileen Evason is to examine how the impact of extra money can be maximised.

One of the most controversial aspects of the reforms, the bedroom tax, will not apply here.

A date and rate for the devolution of corporation tax, which the Executive hopes will lead to the creation of hundreds of new jobs, was also agreed - 12.5 %, the same as in the Irish Republic, by April 2018.

Parts of last December's deal, including a commission to look in detail at the problems over parades, flags and identity are now freed up again, but they are likely to be delayed for months. Work will also get under way on reducing the size of government here, with departments dropping in number from 12 to nine and the number of MLAs possibly being cut from 108 to 90.

Provision of an official opposition - a role to which the UUP has already moved voluntarily, withdrawing their sole minister, Danny Kennedy, from the Executive - and an examination of the controversial petition of concern mechanism, which has been used by parties to block each other, are also involved.

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers and Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan, who co-chaired negotiations over the past 10 weeks, said it was "another step forward" and a "credible road map" for Stormont.

But TUV leader Jim Allister called the agreement a "sticking plaster" which was "all about clinging to power", while Alliance leader David Ford called the plans "half-baked".

New SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: "The SDLP and Alliance were given less than 60 minutes to read a DUP/Sinn Fein document over 60 pages long. We were then expected to enter an Executive meeting and sign up. That is no way to get an all-party agreement."

And Mike Nesbitt's UUP also said it wanted to analyse the document before reaching a definitive conclusion. "There are also some glaring omissions and questions over finances which must be answered," a party statement added.

There was also criticism from economists. On corporation tax, PWC chief economist Esmond Birnie said the year's delay had already damaged the Executive's reputation.

US Secretary of State John Kerry urged all of the parties "to support and fully implement this agreement.

"It was carefully constructed to deliver better and sustainable governance, as well as to advance Northern Ireland's peace process for the benefit of all the people of the region," he said.

The deal: what it means

  • Stormont Executive to top up welfare payments by £585m over four years
  • A new three-strong International Body to monitor paramilitary activity
  • Rate of corporation tax to be cut to 12.5% in 2018
  • £50m for new cross-border task force.
  • £500m Government injection includes extra £160m for the PSNI
  • £60m for work towards dismantling Belfast’s peace walls.
  • £75m for A5 road between Dublin and north-west

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