Belfast Telegraph

Tom Kelly: Most nationalists will accept Stormont deal as yet another staging post on the long road

Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O'Neill at the launch of an Irish Unity billboard in west Belfast
Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O'Neill at the launch of an Irish Unity billboard in west Belfast

By Tom Kelly

Politics does not have to be played as a zero sum game, but increasingly Northern Ireland has spiralled downwards into just that. Political rivals would burn the house down rather than let the other side reside there.

In the previous Executive the DUP seemed to be playing Sinn Fein - to borrow that famous expression from Seamus Mallon - like a 10lb trout. Even the mild-mannered late Martin McGuinness could not stomach such treatment. The DUP strutted across Stormont as if it was 1959, not 2016.

Sinn Fein's grassroots shuddered at the thought of their leadership playing bridesmaid to Arlene Foster's bride. Collapsing the Assembly and the Executive was a nuclear option for Sinn Fein. Unfortunately, once triggered it was clear there was no surefooted way back to the negotiating table.

But three years is a long time to be fighting from the wings - especially as the existential threat of Brexit loomed darkly over Northern Ireland.

The general public, nationalists, unionists and non-aligned have literally watched the very fabric of Northern Ireland crumble.

Road and water infrastructure are sinking beneath our feet; hospitals are knee-deep with patients but without beds and doctors; the education system is not fit for purpose, and the public's anger and frustration has finally drifted toward local politicians.

So, is the New Decade, New Approach a perfect deal?

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The simple answer is no. There is something there for everyone, but there are also some disappointments too. Many of the general public reading the document will wonder why it has taken so long when the genesis of this latest deal has been around since the Good Friday Agreement.

Certainly the promises about a standalone Irish Language Act based on the Welsh legislation have not been met. But, frankly, the absence of an Irish Language Act was not a good reason to abandon devolved government and throw the whole of Northern Ireland at the mercy of Boris's Conservatives at Westminster.

Sinn Fein made an Irish Language Act a red line during the negotiations but it was always going to be a challenge to achieve it.

So far the response of the Irish Language organisation Conradh na Gaelige has been cautiously heartening.

Naturally they are disappointed at some aspects, but they have called the proposals in the New Decade, New Approach document "an historic advancement for our community". And they are right.

This may not be 100% of what they wanted but it is certainly 110% better than anything they had before.

Symbolically to have Irish officially and legally recognised in Northern Ireland is hugely significant.

Some will be angry that there will not be universal road signage in Irish throughout the North but there is neither the political or cultural maturity here to accept such a move. The decision to put on an equal footing the proposed Irish Language Commissioner with a similar one for Ulster-Scots is baffling, but that is the essence of compromise. And, in truth, the DUP had little else to barter for.

Nationalists will by and large welcome the changes to the petition of concern, which was widely misused by the DUP in the previous Assembly to block any social legislation they disliked. The petition of concern will remain a mechanism to protect minority voices but in a much more restricted way.

Certainly, one of the more practical developments will be new proposed code of practice for ministers and special advisers.

This should curb any future solo runs by DUP ministers on issues such as the funding of Irish language. The proposal to create a Veterans' Commissioner will be disturbing for nationalists in the absence of more detail on the role.

Overall, most nationalists will accept the thrust of the new deal, but they may do so with little outward enthusiasm. Having once been infamously labelled as crocodiles, they too have long memories and a good sense of their direction of travel.

Dr Tom Kelly is a political commentator and writer

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