Belfast Telegraph

A week is a long time in politics....

By Will Chambre

A week truly is a long time in Northern Ireland politics. When there are talks about talks, it can seem like an eternity of waiting - a Samuel Beckett world where nothing happens. Or, like last week, a whirlwind of shifting sands in the news agenda.

First, a sort of ‘deal’ that was given the title ‘A Fresh Start’; although it largely dealt with the same issues as the agreement forged in December 2014.

The major talking points in this latest edition are paramilitaries and welfare reform.

On the former, the agreement basically says the parties are going to play nice and work to reduce the influence of paramilitary groups in politics or society. Such groupings of all flavours must be shrugging their shoulders and saying “okay, we’ll just hand over all our guns, drugs, rackets and balaclavas” (before telling the authorities that they’re only joking!).

It is, however, an indication that the long promised peace is beginning to be accepted as the norm - with all shapes and colours publicly committing to push in the same direction to eradicate this hang-over from the troubles/conflict that really should have gone away a long time ago.

With the paramilitaries now playing the role of ‘ordinary decent criminals’ (apart from the lunatic fringe of dissidents), the other issue the talks got down to was welfare reform.

We’ve ended up with a quite expensive mitigation package - to the tune of £585m - with over £240m set aside to help those families who will lose out on tax credits.

If the amounts promised didn’t raise the eyebrows of the electorate, they will certainly have puzzled some members of the Sinn Féin grass roots - who’ll have quickly calculated that the new agreement contains £85 million less than the original Stormont House Agreement that they ultimately rejected.

The Sinn Féin leadership, meanwhile, is adopting the “look, shiny thing over there” approach to keep anyone from noticing...

There was a potential bonanza for the Executive under new measures to tackle welfare fraud. It is get is to get half of the money saved that could prove to be significant for a cash strapped administration.

Despite Alex Attwood’s attempt to recreate the great filibustering speeches in the US Congress of yesteryear, Wednesday’s Assembly motion to give Westminster power to legislate for welfare reform got the nod. While pundits debated the rights of wrongs of this all too familiar ‘fudge’, there was a big collective outpouring of breath that the administrators weren’t about be called into run Norn Iron plc.

The commitment to reduce Corporation Tax to 12.5% by April 2018 was met with a wide welcome, with the business community largely content that one of their primary demands over recent periods has been listened to.  Brass plate engravers are hiring extra staff as dozens of shell companies prepare to shift to Norn Iron.

The largest missing piece of the new agreement was in relation to victims and the legacy of the Northern Ireland’s past. Ultimately, the demands for disclosure from some local parties couldn’t be reconciled with the security concerns of the British government. Victim’s groups hoping for a satisfactory response to this were left disappointed, however, as parties resorted to the blame game. But parking the issue had an air of real politick, as the DUP and Sinn Féin realised they had to get something to show for the hot air generated in the talks.

Big questions remain. Firstly, there are the rights and wrongs of the £585m welfare mitigation package. Some will argue that the money should be spent on reversing cuts to the further education budget and others that it should be directed to reducing hospital waiting lists. Yes, a healthy skilled workforce is a good thing. Isn’t it?

A date and rate was finally set on corporation tax - and while the commitment was largely welcomed by the business community - the question remains: can we really afford the cut to the block grant that will result from NI deciding its own rate, especially when the further education budget is already suffering? Surely reducing corporation tax is pointless if we don’t have the skilled workforce necessary to service potential investors..

Then came Thursday, when - as everyone was drawing breath and trying to get their head around the new agreement - Peter Robinson announced that he would soon resign as First Minister and leader of the DUP.

The Alliance Party’s David Ford described this as “the worst kept secret” in politics, and for many he was right.

That may have been the case in the rarefied circles of Stormont, but for many of the populace the Belfast Telegraph’s front page must have come as a surprise.

What seems much more certain is the outcome of the party’s leadership ‘contest’. Bookies may be laying odds on who will replace Mr Robinson, but in political circles its almost common knowledge that current deputy leader Nigel Dodds will fill the void - with Finance Minister Arlene Foster making her recent acting-First Minister gig a permanent role. Who will fill the deputy leader role is less certain. Could we see a contest?

What’s even more certain is that, should this be the case, the DUP’s new ‘dream team’ will have their fingers crossed that the new deal at Stormont holds up for long enough to give them some political leverage as we approach the May 2016 Assembly election. If we’ve learnt anything over the past seven days, however, it’s that a week is a long time in politics - and 6 months is practically a lifetime!

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