Belfast Telegraph

Billion-pound question: Can Northern Ireland parties come to some sort of agreement?

By Ed Curran

The moneybags of Theresa May jingle temptingly over Stormont this mid-summer day. But will a billion be enough to restore power-sharing and see an end to the stand-off between unionism and nationalism?

The most important aspect of the deal agreed between the DUP and the Conservatives is that it is does not appear to discriminate on class, creed or colour.

If handled properly by a Stormont Executive, the money will be of benefit right across the sectarian and political divide.

The DUP - what some in the British media and political classes condemned as "toxic", "sectarian", "anti-Catholic" and generally a "nasty party" - has extracted a package of goodies from the Tories, for which everyone in Northern Ireland should be grateful.

The DUP has risen to the challenge and has done what any party in its position would have done. It might have given Theresa May a shopping-list which included divisive partisan demands, but it has resisted any such temptation and instead presents a deal that is difficult for even its most outspoken critics to reject.

The past 24 hours have witnessed much nit-picking, huffing and puffing in local radio and TV studios, petty griping, criticism for the sake of criticism, politicking for the sake of politicking.

The bottom line is that this DUP-Tory deal is good for Northern Ireland. It opens doors which were previously closing, if not closed, under the Tories' austerity measures.

It offers a lifeline to tens of thousands of people in this community, in health and education, in agriculture and tourism.

It holds out the promise for an end to the iniquitous tax on air travel. It offers the prospect of more foreign investment if a reduction in corporation tax can be agreed.

It accepts the need for local enterprise zones and city funding across Northern Ireland. It recognises that the legacy of conflict on our society has created unique demands which require more resource.

A billion sounds a lot, but set in the context of Northern Ireland's annual budget of around 10 billion and health spending alone which is close on half of that, this deal only begins to redress the cuts of the past few years.

The reality is that the extra money was directed here because the Conservatives failed to win a majority and the DUP won a record 10 seats and happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Without those two extraordinary political developments, Stormont's financial incentive to return to work would not have materialised. It means everyone at Stormont must revise their thoughts swiftly, not least Sinn Fein.

June 2017 has been a memorable month for Arlene Foster and the DUP, after a year of sagging fortunes and seemingly endless embarrassment over RHI and the Assembly election.

She and her London deputy Nigel Dodds along with Jeffrey Donaldson have survived a hostile national spotlight and struck this deal with notable negotiating guile.

Foster, once down and almost counted out, suddenly looks across the ring and sees her Sinn Fein opponents on the ropes and not looking unduly keen to come out for the next round.

By a quirk of political fate at Westminster, the DUP is in the driving seat at Stormont. The key election message of Sinn Fein and the SDLP on Brexit was that the Northern Ireland Executive was excluded and not part of the British Government's negotiating team.

Can that be said now given the new 'co-ordinating committee' which is part of yesterday's deal and which will afford the DUP an ongoing say at the very heart of Theresa May's new Government?

While she supports Brexit, Arlene Foster is on record that she does not want to see a return to a hard Irish border. She appears to be on the same ground as the new Irish leader, Leo Varadkar, and even the Sinn Fein leadership.

After a deeply divisive general election, they all find themselves singing from virtually the same Brexit hymn-sheet on having as open a border as possible.

However, there is one crucial new factor: Arlene Foster, more than the Dublin government, or Sinn Fein, finds herself with the clout to deliver.

Then there is that extra billion. Sinn Fein, the party which opposed so resolutely the years of Tory austerity, now faces a dilemma. Can it really pass up this opportunity to regain some control at Stormont at a time when the new funding is so obviously in need across so many departments?

Finally, what about Arlene Foster's unwillingness to stand aside over the RHI scandal? No matter how justified the criticism directed at her, since no one knows when the RHI inquiry of Sir Patrick Coghlin is likely to end, can she really be expected to remain out of office until he eventually reports, which may more than a year away and possibly even longer?

The questions come thick and fast for Sinn Fein now, just as they did for Foster and the DUP a few short months ago. Overnight, the issues which divide do not seem so clear-cut.

Money talks in any society. Stormont and Northern Ireland needs all the money it can get, but it is in grave danger of wishing the gift horse away if a belated and long-overdue restoration of power-sharing cannot be agreed this week.

As the moneybags jingle over Stormont, everyone is required to think again on the issues which divide them.

Belfast Telegraph


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