The great achievements of the peace process were a triumph for democrats on this island who were willing to invest enormous time and patience into bringing a murderous minority to abandon violence. The overwhelming majority of people believed and still believe that we have a duty to work for a shared future of everybody who lives on this island.
The breakthroughs of achieving ceasefires, a new constitutional blueprint, active cross-border engagement, decommissioning and devolved authority did not happen by accident and they did not happen because any individual or party imposed its will – they happened because of the will of people which demanded a better future.
By every means available to measure public sentiment, the last few years have seen a growing disillusionment and sense of drift which has, at times, threatened to engulf the peace process.
People lost the sense of a process which was about building a better future for them as they looked at institutions which spent their time on partisan gridlock and increasingly sectarian posturing. On the streets, a process which promised reconciliation was seen to feed isolation and identity politics.
A combination of party self-interest and governmental neglect led to a crisis which was entirely avoidable. Thankfully the governments decided to reverse their policy of disengagement and we finally got serious round-table negotiations.
What has emerged does not provide answers to most of the problems which were being discussed, but it does represent a step forward and hopefully a beginning to tackling damaging behaviours of recent years.
Fianna Fáil welcomes the Stormont House Agreement as a positive one. For the first time in a number of years there has been some level of agreement between the largest parties in Northern Ireland to acknowledge and begin addressing deep and growing problems. The Irish and British governments have also acknowledged the error of disengagement and returned to an understanding of their roles as active facilitators of the process.
The Executive and Assembly have been given a new opportunity to work in the spirit of cross-community cooperation. The largest parties have promised to end the exclusion of smaller parties and the public from key discussions. There has been a new commitment to addressing issues of identity and history in an inclusive and tolerant way.
The Agreement is however somewhat flawed when its main positive feature is the commitment to agree things in the future rather than actually finding agreement now.
As yesterday’s Budget revealed, the financial impact of the deal is minor and primarily enables a smokescreen to cover the implementation of policies which the parties said they would never implement.
In spite of this, the Agreement should on balance be welcomed and it is a stark contrast to the cycle of complacency and growing division which defined the last few years.
The reality is that this happened because of two very damaging developments, both of which marked significant moves away from the dynamics behind all progress to date.
The first issue was that the governments agreed on a policy which assumed that all the hard work was done. Their explicit policy was that the time had come to force the parties to take responsibility and that the DUP and Sinn Fein would understand the need to deliver.
This policy was a complete failure. As sectarian conflict rose on the ground, as the Executive grew ever more dysfunctional and as fewer and fewer policies were agreed the governments kept saying that everything would be fine.
Worst of all they enabled the second damaging move away from past practice, which was the growing exclusion by the DUP and Sinn Fein of others. At every stage they have shown an iron commitment to securing advantage for their parties.
It’s what Deputy Adams calls the ‘electoralism’ strategy. Rather than embracing the idea of trying to deliver an inclusive government they have focused on the fight to become the dominant representatives of their parts of the community.
Both parties showed a highly selective commitment to the institutions of the government they belonged to. Whether it was threatening to withdraw from policing when one of your members is arrested or refusing to condemn sectarian lawlessness, the parties have sought to have it all ways at once.
When Fianna Fáil started pointing to an impending crisis three years ago the DUP and Sinn Fein did find a unity in attacking us and claiming that actually things had never been better.
Within the Executive and Assembly they have actively marginalised all other voices. Ministers from other parties have been denied basic information about matters before the Executive they belong to.
Both large parties supported the continued breaking of legal agreements to establish a Civic Forum because, and they actually admitted this, as they preferred people and groups to come to them directly.
This strategy worked for them electorally but it has been incredibly damaging for pubic faith in the institutions of the peace process. In 1998 combined they won 35% of the vote. Now they have 55% and see themselves as the leaders of their communities. Unfortunately this has primarily come from pushing people away from politics.
Election turnout is at the lowest ever level. The electorate is growing but 160,000 fewer people are voting. The Community Relations Council has shown that the majority no longer believe that the devolved institutions are delivering.
The combination of governmental disengagement and party game-playing gave us this crisis. Only by ending them permanently will we return to the type of progress for peace and reconciliation which was seen previously.
While Fianna Fáil welcomes the Agreement we do not welcome the financial arrangements which have enabled it. They suggest that the Cameron government continues to have no real understanding of how precious and fragile the peace in Northern Ireland is.
London’s policy has been one of seeking to end the idea of Northern Ireland as a special case for investment. This is an appalling attitude and I regret that our government did not feel able to make the case, at least publicly, that it was wrong to endanger progress for the sake of amounts which are tiny in UK terms. The people of Northern Ireland have enough challenges on their plate not to add dramatic job cuts and service cuts on top.
On top of a minor amount of money the Executive is being allowed to divert investment spending and borrow in order to cover short-term budget holes. How can these decisions show a commitment to the long-term future of Northern Ireland to do something like this?
The claim of Deputy McDonald yesterday that Sinn Fein held out and got what it wanted on welfare reform is manifestly untrue. Welfare cuts will proceed. So too will education cuts, though both at a slightly lower level than first proposed.
Most seriously 20,000 jobs are to be cut with no idea where these cuts will come from or what services they will hit. The rhetoric of the DUP and Sinn Fein yesterday about minimal impact was fooling nobody.
That the issue of flags and parades is actually bigger today than it has been in the past shows a great lack of leadership by many at different levels.
This has provided the outlet for many of the worst sectarian flashpoints and there is no doubt that the enemies of progress have exploited different situations.
I have great reservations about what the agreement says about parades.
Unionists have pushed for many years for the disbandment of the Parades Commission and the development of a new architecture. They were anxious to move the parades issue into the political sphere.
This is very risky and premature in my view. I do not believe this is a good move and it will cause political instability in the future.
The Parades Commission should be maintained. It is objective and independent. It also had the ability to make rules that had to be abided .I hope I am wrong but I do not believe there will be much progress on parades if it is left solely to the members of the NI Assembly.
The Assembly has yet to illustrate how it is capable of facing down intense communal pressures. Unfortunately there is no evidence of this happening in the short or medium term.
The core issue is not how decisions on parades are taken; it is showing respect for a process which can sometimes recommend something you don’t agree with. In concrete terms, the statement in the Agreement concerning parades does little beyond reaffirming current principles.
A bill of rights is a basic document for a society which is trying to overcome conflict. It sets out common basic rights which can serve as a foundation for a shared politics. It should not be a political football and it is long past time for this to be delivered. The failure of the parties to honour this commitment is a serious weakness of the Agreement.
So too is the approach to other clear legal commitments under past agreements. The Northern Ireland Civic Forum is part of an agreement ratified by the people of this island in free referendums. It is not an option it is an obligation. When the DUP and Sinn Fein closed it down they said it was too big and cost too much but that they would propose something better. The convening of a small group hand-picked by those parties continues to ignore the obligation to have a genuinely independent Forum.
History shows that it is marginal groups with limited electoral appeal that can lead to the worst violence and divisions. The Forum is a way of reaching out to them.
The passage of a Language Act is also not optional and the lack of progress is unacceptable. The Irish language, a language preserved and promoted by people of all traditions, today has less legal recognition than its sister languages in Wales and Scotland.
The Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition is another outcome which is about establishing a willingness to engage rather than achieving anything specific. However even a willingness to engage represents important progress. In practice, the centrality of the parties in the Commission will mean that it will need substantial governmental engagement to succeed.
It is a bad sign that it required an Agreement such as this to force the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to share basic information with members of the Executive who are not members of the DUP or Sinn Fein.
The Agreement’s proposals relating to the past are also welcome. They are modest but they do represent potentially significant progress. As others have said, too often in recent years the real war of the past has been replaced by a ‘war of narratives’. Each side has worked hard to impose its version of history rather than work on finding common ground and a respect for difference.
In a manner which has many fewer repercussions we have seen this here in recent years with the Sinn Fein project to falsify Irish republican history by claiming ownership of a movement which has nothing to do with the Provisional movement created in the 1970s.
Equally we see it in the fact that certain parties are only ever interesting in investigating the crimes of others.
To date, the Irish government is the only party to the process which has been fully open and honest about its actions and failings during the decades of the Provisional’s campaign. The proposal for the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval may address one aspect of the issue. I think it is wrong that the DUP and Sinn Fein have effectively been given a privileged right over all other Northern parties to a role in nominating members to the Commission and I trust that our government will insist that the members have the confidence of those who represent parties who never condoned, encouraged or participated in the crimes involved.
The failure of the British government to commit to a proper investigation and transparency relating to the Finucane murder and the Dublin/Monaghan bombings is a huge and unacceptable omission.
In relation to North/South engagement the commitment to finally move ahead with the obligation to review and develop cross-border institutions is a step forward. I would welcome a special debate on this matter in the near future.
On behalf of Fianna Fáil I would like to commend Minister Flanagan for his personal commitment.
In his few months in office he has chosen to directly reengage in Northern issues and this has been very helpful. I believe that some of the government’s statements about this jurisdictions right in Northern discussions have been wrong, but the Minister’s actions have been very positive.
If this Agreement marks a moment where the parties genuinely commit themselves to working across communal divisions in the common interest then it will be a very positive footnote in the process of building peace and reconciliation.
However if all it does is represent a further kicking down the road of deep problems – if the parties and governments return to their recent habits of complacency and disengagement – it will be seen as a dangerous missed opportunity.
For everyone’s sake I hope that the procedures and discussions which the Stormont House Agreement has created can turn a crisis into a new moment of hope.