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Commissioners at every turn but is this a deal for a lasting Assembly?

Jon Tonge


Professor Jon Tonge

Professor Jon Tonge

Professor Jon Tonge

So many commissioners in such a small place. Irish language, Ulster-Scots, ministerial standards, military veterans.

Maybe we need an Independent Commission for Commissioning like the old Decommissioning one. Whatever one's view of the 'New Decade. New Approach' (NDNA) Stormont deal, it involves plenty of job creation.

Assuming they remain in post, Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill will certainly own what is agreed.

They will be the Supreme Commissioners responsible for the appointments of the language commissioners.

Those appointees will work closely with the Orwellian-sounding Office of Identity and Cultural Expression to promote "cultural pluralism"- a grievance factory in waiting.

What's in it for the unlucky few not to get a commissioner job? There is much of merit but also some woolliness. The Executive will examine, enhance, explore, publish strategies (14 are suggested) etc. etc. The document is better where its specific pledges are found. There is something old, something new, something borrowed and something red-white-and-blue in the plan.

Old? The language proposals are 2018, reheated. A three-stranded arrangement covering Irish language, Ulster-Scots and general identity issues. For Sinn Fein, the Irish Language Act (ILA) might not be standalone but the amended Northern Ireland Act gives most of what a dedicated bill would have offered. An ILA was never going to include formal quotas for Irish speakers, nor compulsory Irish in schools or on street signs.

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The question begged is what will the Irish Language Commissioner promote - and how - if so little is statutory and when faced with likely opposition from unionist parties? The postholder is obliged to "enhance the development of the use of the Irish language by public authorities". In what ways? And what happens if they do not cooperate?

Petitions of concern (PoCs) will be "returned to their intended purpose" - which was never actually defined in their two brief mentions in the Good Friday Agreement. The plan says they will now require support from at least two parties states the plan. But given 28 is the highest number of MLAs held by a single party (the DUP) no party can go solo anyway. So it's hardly a major change. That said, there is some laudable text introducing greater precision over how PoCs are deployed and at which stages of the legislative process.

Meanwhile, the 2014 Stormont House Agreement dealing with legacy and other issues is to be delivered "within 100 days" - a mere six years late.

New? There is some serious money involved in the package. The economic aspects are the most positive.

Substantial cash is attached, more even than that netted by the DUP in its 2017 confidence-and-supply deal. This money will offer positive benefits to many people's lives, via improved mental health provision, a pay settlement for nurses - and 900 more of them and three courses of IVF treatment. The infrastructure financial promises to Derry, especially, are potentially transformative.

On Brexit, there will be a dedicated committee and a promise that a restored Northern Ireland Executive will be consulted - but anyone thinking that this say will be crucial should ask the devolved administrations how they regard the effectiveness of the Joint Ministerial Council, particularly on EU matters. The replies will be less than complimentary.

The deal promises legislation to ensure the seamlessness of NI-GB trade but it's the GB-NI direction that is more problematic given what the EU deal states.

Neither the UK nor a restored devolved government can wish away Protocol text which requires goods heading from GB to NI to be treated as potential entrants to the EU Single Market - requiring checks and declaration which do impair the UK single market.

Borrowed? There are long-overdue rules on ministerial accountability and a laudable bolstering of an official Opposition, finally imported from most western democracies. For any party, there is the option of entering an official opposition with much greater recognition than the embryo which emerged in the dying years of the previous Assembly. Useful ideas on civic engagement, increasingly evident in other political systems, have also been incorporated.

Red, white and blue? The Union flag can be hoisted on public buildings for an extra few days. But presumably not for the Sussexes.

On a bad day for Stormont cobwebs, the British and Irish governments must be pleased with their work.

Dealing with Northern Ireland must seem a breeze for the Dublin administration, compared to organising RIC commemorations.

The DUP was first out of the blocks to hail the plan as the basis for a deal. That basis is far more the changed political context than the deal's novelty. A Stormont return seemed certain the moment the exit poll appeared on our TV screens on December 12. What was unsellable internally within the DUP on language amid Westminster glories in 2018 is now a case of needs-must. Without Stormont, the DUP - and everyone else - faces a generation of powerlessness. It's a bleak vista none of the parties wished to contemplate.

So, will it be fun to stay with the NDNA? In the short-term yes but the deal needs to endure for years for Stormont to restore its credibility. Maybe a role for a Prevention of Breakdown Commissioner?

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool

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