Belfast Telegraph

Alex Kane: No popping corks, but certainly new opportunities in Stormont deal

Assembly authorities are preparing for a possible sitting to be held before Monday's deadline.
Assembly authorities are preparing for a possible sitting to be held before Monday's deadline.
Alex Kane

Alex Kane

At the start of the week I tweeted: ' I still get no sense whatsoever of the sort of deal which would make it possible for the main parties to work in honest cooperation to implement a commonly agreed Programme for Government. Doesn't mean a deal won't be done, it just won't be one worthy of popping champagne corks.'

And I think that's precisely the deal we have right now: probably enough in it to keep the main parties on board, but without any great hope that it actually represents a new way of doing politics here better or even differently.

What was interesting was how quickly the DUP moved to take possession of it. Within minutes of the Julian Smith/Simon Coveney press conference ending last night and the agreement being published online Arlene Foster had issued a statement: 'On balance we believe there is a basis upon which the Assembly and Executive can be re-established in a fair and balanced way.'

I wonder if the speedy response was part of a pre-planned choreography; a signal to Sinn Fein (who have still to give their own definitive response) that, unlike the debacle of February 2018, the DUP is fully, unambiguously committed to this deal.

A signal, too, to elements of loyalism that there were no serious divisions within the DUP and that the leader's stance was fully supported.

The trouble, though, with 'something for everyone' deals, particularly one being published 22 years after the original Good Friday Agreement in order to get the parties out of yet another hole, is that there may not be enough in it that they're willing to take common possession of.

The DUP and Sinn Fein highlighting what they got and what they stopped may be enough to get it through their individual leadership circles, but that doesn't mean that they will be able to reach agreement when it comes to a Programme for Government or prioritising key issues.

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Also, it doesn't mean that they'll be able to resolve the big-ticket issues which have been long-grassed since 1998.

But, all that aside, we should welcome the fact that a deal seems to have been reached. Had it not, there's every likelihood that the entire political process could have collapsed, leading to a lengthy period of direct rule (probably with significant input from the Irish government) in which the DUP and unionism generally wouldn't have much influence.

I have no doubt that pure self-interest, following on from the ending of their relationship with the Conservatives and the need to find a new power-base, is the key element in the DUP's decision to back the deal. So be it.

The party needs a role and a platform from which it can influence events locally (particularly as the details of the border in the Irish Sea become known) and an Assembly is the only option available.

There are obviously difficulties for unionism in what the two governments have presented them with, yet I'm not persuaded that any of those difficulties represent an existential threat to either NI unionism/loyalism or the Union itself. Indeed, it is possible that political stability and a period of things settling down again might actually take some pressure off unionism; particularly if the Assembly is able to build and sustain a joint approach to the impact locally of the EU Withdrawal Agreement.

There are obvious difficulties for Sinn Fein (which also needs a local powerbase to offset electoral setbacks here), too, not least the fact that there isn't a standalone Irish Language Act, significant reform to the Petition of Concern, or removal of potential DUP vetoes on some issues.

That said, there isn't a huge difference between this deal and the one that the party believed it had got over the line in February 2018, so I would be genuinely surprised it rejected it. Again, though, there isn't much evidence to suggest that acceptance will lead to some sort of new and cosy relationship with the DUP.

Because of its obvious flaws, along with much of what experience has taught us, it is impossible to describe the deal as a major breakthrough. At best it is mere catch-up. But we are in a better place than we were 24 hours ago and that's no bad thing.

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