New Stormont deal ends three-year suspension
Sinn Féin and the DUP have agreed to restore devolved government in Northern Ireland after years of deadlock and division. Since the breakdown of Northern Ireland’s institutions in January 2017, several rounds of negotiations were led by both the British and Irish governments in an attempt to broker an agreeable deal between the main parties. All of these attempts ended in failure, until now.
DUP leader Arlene Foster cautiously lent her support to the deal on Thursday night, citing that the deal was not “perfect” but constituted “a basis upon which the Assembly and Executive can be re-established.” After a meeting of their Ard Chomhairle Officer Board at lunchtime the next day, Sinn Féin also opted to return to the table. Party leader Mary-Lou McDonald commented that sufficient progress had been made on the Irish language, adding that it was not just a historic day for Gaeilgeoirs but also for the recognition of the Irish identity itself. They will be joined in the mulit-party government by the SDLP, UUP and Alliance party.
The deal, entitled ‘New Decade, New Approach’, was presented to the parties last week by the British Secretary of State Julian Smith and Tánaiste Simon Coveney. The breakthrough comes three years after the Executive was collapsed by the resignation of Martin McGuinness, following questions regarding the DUP’s role in the ‘Cash for Ash’ RHI scandal.
Compromise was reached over the deadlock’s main sticking point, the passage of an Irish Language Act. The current deal will afford official status to the language, as well as introducing Commissioners to protect and enhance both the Irish language and Ulster-Scots respectively. An Office of Identity and Cultural Expression will also be created “to celebrate and support all aspects of Northern Ireland’s rich cultural and linguistic heritage”.
The parties also came to consensus on the petition of concern, a notice that protects minority interests in the Assembly and is activated by the signatures of at least 30 MLAs. While it was originally intended to be used in exceptional matters, it was actually enforced 115 times during the 2011-2016 Assembly term, which made it difficult for new laws to pass through the Assembly. This new deal will significantly reform the mechanism, by promising that it will “only in the most exceptional circumstances and as a last resort” and must be enacted by two or more parties.
The 62-page deal will also see the newly-returned Executive provided with a significant injection of additional cash from Westminster, to tackle the acute funding problems the North faces in its schools and hospitals. This includes a plan to swiftly delivery pay parity for nurses, a commitment which is intended to bring an end to the ongoing industrial action being taken by health workers. The Irish government have also made a number of investment promises, including £75 million for the Derry-Dublin A5 road upgrade.
Locally, optimism has also been restored to the Narrow Water Bridge project, which would provide greater transport linkage between the areas of South Down and South Armagh, by connecting Warrenpoint and Fathom. The proposed carriageway was explicitly included in the deal as one of a number of “potential” capital projects that could be incorporated into the British government’s infrastructure plans. The bridge already received planning clearance back in 2012 and also has the support of the Irish government, who are keen to progress on the matter.
A number of institutional changes are also included to ensure Northern Ireland never goes this long without an Executive again. Going forward, if relationships between the governing parties break down, a 24-week period must pass before an Assembly election can be called. During this time, incumbent Ministers must continue to work in a caretaker capacity within their Departments. There will also be a ‘party’s leader forum’ and increased scrutiny powers for opposition parties. Further to these, any recommendations from the upcoming RHI Inquiry report will also be acted upon by the British government.
MLA’s returned to the Assembly chamber on Saturday to select a new Executive, which will again be headed up by Arlene Foster as First Minister and Michelle O’Neill as Deputy First Minister. Appointments to the Executive included that of local Newry Armagh MLA Conor Murphy, who will be undertaking the portfolio of Minister for Finance. In this role, he will be charged with allocating the most suitable and efficient use of resources at the disposal of the Stormont administration, alongside responsibilities in overseeing both building regulations and the civil service.