“Fresh Start” Agreement will work only if the Parties and Governments change their behaviour – FF Leader
Published on: 25 November 2015
11 months ago the Stormont House Agreement was agreed by the governments and some of the parties in Northern Ireland. It provided a basis for preventing the imminent collapse of the Executive and Assembly and it was presented as a decisive move forward.
What it did not represent was a decisive move away from the behaviour which caused that crisis in the first place. The main players carried on as before and lurched into the inevitable impasse of recent months.
This new Agreement is welcome because it removes the immediate threat of long-term collapse of democratic institutions established as the result of the overwhelming support of the people of this island. It provides a fresh start only in terms of the implementation of the last deal. It does not provide a fresh start or anything close to it for the people of Northern Ireland. The core dysfunction of recent years is not addressed in this agreement.
Unless this is challenged – unless the parties start working together and the governments reengage, the destructive cycle of crises will continue and the people of Northern Ireland will be the biggest losers.
One element which is new in the Agreement is the commitment to focus on addressing paramilitarism in Northern Ireland.
The cult of the ‘big man’ who can enforce silence and discipline is a curse which has held back communities which want to unite to build a shared peace and prosperity. The extra resources and procedures for monitoring and challenging paramilitarism and cross-border gangsterism are very welcome.
Only a few weeks ago some elements here were denying there was any problem. They were claiming that anyone who expressed concern was playing politics. Today they are promoting a deal which recognises the sinister remnants of groups which have brought nothing but misery to this island for far too long.
We strongly support the new commitment to disrupt their network and show that no one is untouchable.
We are very surprised that the Agreement does not give explicit parity to the threat posed by Loyalist paramilitarism. As has been seen too often, and particularly on the streets of Belfast, this sinister element remains and must also be tackled with the same force as Provisional and dissident paramilitarism.
It is a major failing of the Agreement that it fails to address the right of families to know who was responsible for the deaths of their loved ones.
The British government remains in clear breach of its commitments in the Weston Park Agreement to allow the open and independent investigation of crimes such as the murder of Pat Finucane which may trace to collusion by British forces.
Equally, the Provisional movement has continued to deny basic justice and closure to many of its victims, including cases of abuse and murder which happened well after the ceasefires and the Good Friday Agreement.
So far the Irish government is the only party to this issue which has fulfilled its commitment to transparency about the past. Allegations of Garda collusion were subject to rigorous independent investigation and the policy has been that the truth must be allowed to emerge no matter how uncomfortable.
Unfortunately, the British Government and Sinn Fein have stood in the way of dealing with the past in order to protect their own interests. Each continues to focus on the victims of others and does the absolute minimum on anything involving their side.
We share the outrage of victims groups about how this issue has been brushed aside. At a minimum they are entitled to see the proposals tabled by the parties to this Agreement so that we can all see how serious these negotiations actually were. The cover-up must stop.
The continued failure to agree the Bill of Rights and Act as well as the full restoration of the Civic Forum is a disgrace and each represents a breach of an Agreement supported by an overwhelming majority of the Irish people in a free referendum.
Clearly Deputy Adams’ description of the equality agenda as the “Trojan Horse” of the Provisional movement has caused damage, but equality measures are not an option for those who participate in the Northern Institutions they are a requirement.
It is at best unfortunate that the governments did not insist on tougher measures to secure their implementation.
The Agreement does contain a fig leaf concerning the Civic Forum by providing for a Civic Advisory Panel. The detail reveals this too is utterly devoid of substance.
Its members will be nominated by the DUP and Sinn Fein, it will represent only a few elements of civic society and, most incredibly, it will be allowed to discuss no more than two issues a year each of which will be cleared in advance by the DUP and Sinn Fein.
The Civic Forum was kept in suspension because when the DUP and Sinn Fein took control of the Executive they wanted to limit alternative voices. In tandem with the limiting of access to information for other parties in the Executive they said that the Civic Forum was not needed because the First and Deputy First Ministers would be available to civic society.
It has taken some remarkable neck for Sinn Fein to suddenly start calling for the restoration of the Forum when they refused to restore it and have now agreed a meaningless and politically compliant replacement.
The financial measures included in the Agreement have received a lot of attention in the past week. Many claims have been made about what they amount to but the only thing which is clear is that there has not been a commitment to major new funding for Northern Ireland.
Through the concentration of what was a six year programme into four year, unidentified savings and an amount of wishful thinking there has been quite a bit of hype from the parties about the outcome.
Before any of this can be trusted let’s see the detail. The claims made last year about mitigating welfare cuts turned out to be false, there is no reason to believe that this time will be different.
The fact that much of the welfare mitigation will come directly from funding for other public services is of real concern.
So too is the fact that €125 million will be available only if it appears through a clampdown on welfare fraud which is unlikely to secure anything close to that figure.
In this Agreement Sinn Fein decided to hand power to London in order to avoid having to vote for measures they were enabling. This is a profound confirmation that it puts party interests before the ideology it claims to be the sole representative of on this island.
The handing of power back to London was enforced by Sinn Fein and the DUP with an aggressive manoeuvre in the Assembly. The material was published three minutes before the debate and standard scrutiny procedures were suspended.
This puts even our own debate-averse government in shade when it comes to marginalising democratic assemblies.
Whatever about the politics what really matters is that the Agreement entrenches a deeply damage approach to public services and social protection in Northern Ireland.
Everyone now agrees that Northern Ireland is still dealing with the legacy of paramilitarism and cross-border criminality that are undermining its society and economy. It has the worst poverty rates on these islands and ever-increasing rates of dangerous marginalisation.
Northern Ireland desperately needs an investment plan and the failure to deliver this is the most important failure of this Agreement.
While the British government’s refusal to see the need for investment is more significant we have to note the Taoiseach’s refusal to set an example or to show that delivering peace and progress through development is something which his government is committed to.
The financial commitment made by our government is considerably down on what was previously envisaged. More importantly there is a continued refusal to fund important North/South Projects.
In this Agreement the government says it will again review the Narrow Water Bridge project. We shouldn’t be reviewing the project we should be building it.
Even 20 years ago how much would we have given if communities North and South had come looking to build permanent connections and vision of joint development?
This is a deeply flawed Agreement which nonetheless deserves to be supported for two reasons; it puts off the immediate threat to the long-term position of the Assembly and Executive and it promises a means of addressing the destabilising and criminal paramilitarism which should by now have disappeared.
Fundamentally this agreement will change little unless we see an end to the behaviour of recent years which has delivered institutions focussed on the interests of two parties rather than the public interest.
The most effective way to tackle this would be for the leaders of the two governments to end their disengagement and start treating Northern Ireland as a subject worthy of their active attention.
That Prime Minister Cameron attended no negotiation and merely held a meeting with two of the leaders is appalling. How can you build a united society in Northern Ireland if you don’t even try to engage with its problems and you ignore so many of its representatives?
The Taoiseach’s disengagement is equally damaging and a direct reversal of the policies of his predecessors of all parties.
While I do not agree with the policies she imposed, the commitment of Secretary of State Villiers should be respected.
I would also like to note that Minister Flanagan has given a genuine and active personal commitment to negotiating an Agreement and to ongoing involvement in issues concerning Northern Ireland.
This Agreement is called “A Fresh Start”. Let us all hope that this does not translate into more of the same.