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From: Irish Political Review: Editorials
Date: January, 2015
By: Editorial

Stormont House Agreement: Adams Avoids The Trap!

Stormont House Agreement
Adams Avoids The Trap!
Sinn Fein has agreed to social welfare cuts in Northern Ireland at the insistence of Dublin and London.
The fall of the 'Northern Ireland state' for the third time has been averted. It fell in 1972. It fell again in 1974. Then it did not exist for 25 years. And now its fall for a third time has been averted by Sinn Fein's agreement to the "austerity" measures imposed by London and supported by Dublin.
If Sinn Fein had agreed to the cut in social welfare payments in the North when they were demanded months ago, it would have placed itself in a vulnerable position in the Dail. Coalition Ministers were already beginning to criticise it for double-standards, being anti-Austerity in the South, while introducing it in the North. While the criticism would have been bogus, it would have passed muster in the South, which keeps itself ill-informed about the governing system in the North.

We assume that the handling of the situation by Gerry Adams in recent months has had the purpose of disabling the criticism of the Coalition over Sinn Fein's agreement to social welfare cuts by making the Coalition demand publicly that it should agree to the implementation of the cuts insisted on by London.
Sinn Fein went up to the wire on the issue. If it had continued to reject welfare cuts for another 24 hours, the devolved Northern Ireland system of the British state would have fallen. For a brief instant Whitehall struck the posture of threatening Sinn Fein that it would take Northern Ireland back under direct Whitehall Government. But Northern Ireland was entirely a Whitehall project imposed on the Six Counties in 1921 in response to no local demand for it and it would have done Cameron no good at all to bring about its collapse on the eve of a General Election.
Dublin, too, realised as the moment of truth approached, that it very much did not want the problems of Northern Ireland opened up again for it.

The crisis arose because Cameron over-rode the devolved authority by insisting that it must carry out social welfare cuts in line with those being implemented in England and Wales. In theory responsibility for social welfare is devolved to the Assembly. This is curious because the actual payments are made from central coffers. In this instance, London was unwilling to have NI make up the difference from its own budget.
Dublin, as a guarantor of the 1998 Agreement, might have pointed out that Whitehall was infringing on the authority of the devolved government, as established in the Agreement, by interfering with the way it chose to spend its allocation of funds. But it didn't. If it had done so, it would have been aligned with Sinn Fein. It chose to play politics against Sinn Fein on the issue instead, only to be effectively countered by Sinn Fein in the matter of politicking.
By holding on to the last minute, SF achieved some amelioration for those worst-hit by the welfare cuts by the allocation of some extra funds for this purpose from London.

Then it was agreed that "with the implementation of key measures to deliver sustainable Executive finance", there will be Westminster legislation "to enable the devolution of corporation tax in April 2017" (para 8). This means that Belfast can have the Dublin rate of Corporation Tax.

Public assets have been quietly sold off in Northern Ireland by Whitehall and other bodies for a number of years. Now the devolved Government is exhorted to do likewise.

There is to be a "Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition", consisting of 15 members, 7 of which will represent the parties, and the majority represent something else. The "Commission's work may touch on expressions of sovereignty and identity, it may consult the UK and Irish Governments" (para 15)—which, having no representative connections with the Six Counties, know nothing about these aspects of life in them.

The business of the Parades Commission is to be transferred to the Assembly. But, if the Assembly can't agree—which is a certainty—there would be Independent Adjudication.

Under the heading of The Past, there is provision for an Oral History Archive—a domestic replacement for Lord Bew's disgraced Boston College operation. Contributors are to be guaranteed against "defamation claims" and "political interference" (paras 22-24). There is no mention of possible police action resulting from statements made.

In addition there will be a Historical Investigation Unit, replacing both Historical Enquiries Team, and the Police Ombudsman (in this area), to deal with legacy security issues (para 30 onwards). This relates mainly to families seeking explanations for the deaths of relatives during the War. But this provision will not replace the Inquest system, which has been found the most efficacious in finding answers to security force killings—despite being hampered at every turn by Government agencies.
As for criminal prosecutions, the document declares this is a matter for the DPP.

Provision is made for yet a third institution of this kind, the Independent Commission On Information Retrieval (paras 41 onwards). The idea is to "enable victims and survivors to seek and privately receive information about the (Troubles-related) deaths of their next of kin". It will be given powers to conduct its affairs entirely confidentially and will obtain information from British and Irish Government agencies as well as from individuals. Paragraph 49 states:

"The ICIR will not disclose the identities of people who provide information. No individual who provides information to the body will be immune from prosecution for any crime committed should the required evidential test be satisfied by other means."

There were rumours that the Petition Of Concern was to be dropped. That would have been a major change. It would have been a step back towards majority rule. As things stand, a petition of 30 members requires Assembly motions to be voted on by Nationalists and Unionists separately and are only passed if they gain a majority in each. That arrangement is to continue. Changes to it can only be made "through a protocol agreed by the parties" (para 58).

Paragraph 59 provides for the establishment of an Official Opposition. This Opposition would consist of—

"parties which would be entitled to ministerial positions in the Executive, but choose not to take them up".

An Official Opposition without an Official Government would be something new. The system is that every Party with a certain number of seats in the Assembly gets a Department to run. There are governing Departments, but not a general Government which supervises them.
The SDLP and UUP can now resign their Ministries and be constituted an Official Opposition, with rights imitating those in Westminster. But they will not have a Government to ask questions of. And, although debating points about the need for an Opposition have been heard from both the SDLP and UUP, it is very unlikely that they would resign their ministries in order to be an Opposition that would not be an alternative Government. And, if they were willing in principle to go into opposition, how could they as Nationalists and Unionists act as a single Opposition? Surely the only practical arrangement under the system would be for two Official Oppositions, in conflict with each other. And, in the absence of a Government to question, should there not be an Opposition Question Time in which they could question each other?

Paragraph 60 provides for the reduction of Ministries from 12 to 9.
Paragraphs 62 to 65, governing meetings of the Executive itself, read like Standing Orders one would expect a Chess Club to have as a matter of course, e.g. an Agenda to be circulated in advance of a meeting. The object seems to be to give some appearance of being a Government to two groups of Ministers who hold their positions independently as the party nominees of antagonistic parties.
But Northern Ireland remains what Westminster set it up to be in 1921—a devolved system of communal antagonism.

Only one real change has been made since 1921. The dominance of the Unionist community, operated outside the democratic political system of the state, generated such a depth of hostility in the Nationalist community that it sustained a 25 year war against the State which the State eventually gave up hope of winning. In order to end that unwinnable war, the State changed the terms of the conflict of communities by making a level playing field for it.
How often have we heard the complaint in recent times, when a Government in some foreign part is acting against an opposition, that the playing field is not level! Well, the Northern Ireland playing field is pretty level now.
The antagonism of communities continues because outside the democracy of a state nothing else is possible. The British state has decreed that British democracy is not to be the medium of democratisation in the Six Counties. It has its reasons for that decree, and it broke the Ulster Unionist will to be British back around 1920. So, if there is to be further substantial change, there is only one direction in which it can happen.

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