Are We There Yet?


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So the DUP and Sinn Féin have managed to negotiate their way through the disaster scenarios to a deal. No walkouts, elections or joint authority after all. The agreement is now out for consultation, so there will be plenty of opportunity to pick over the details over the next few weeks. The outline is:

  • The devolution of policing and justice powers to the NI Executive and Assembly by 12th April; a decision on Monday about who which party will take the Justice Minister post, subject to a vote in the Assembly;
  • A ‘new and improved framework’ for decisions on parading, via an OFMDFM working group, to be completed in three weeks and working with a set of five key principles included in the document today; new legislation by the end of the year and the Parades Commission to continue to operate until it is passed;
  • An all-party working group on the functioning of the NI Executive;
  • An all-party working group to review all outstanding matter and how they can be progressed, which presumably includes the Irish language issue and community relations.

There is of course still great potential for it all to fall apart. The most obvious weakness remains around parading – three weeks for a working group to come up with a replacement for the Parades Commission is a big ask. Wider consultation may throw up issues which are not supported by some political parties or by elements of civil society. And working groups on the Executive and on outstanding issues may create divisions between parties in the Assembly which could affect the devolution vote on 9th March.

The new agreement has two interesting potential longer term implications for our local political dynamics. First, it’s bad news for the alleged ‘middle ground’ – SDLP, UUP and Alliance – who are seen by some as an oppositional group simply because they are not the DUP or Sinn Féin. Whatever about the brinkmanship, the two largest parties can now claim they’ve done the heavy lifting – they have negotiated difficult issues and achieved a result. I can see the election literature now. Alliance can make some political capital out of taking the Justice Ministry (if they do – the decision will be made on Monday). The SDLP and the UUP (with or without the Tories or the DUP) have been marginalised and will have to work hard to convince the electorate that they could have done better.

Second, the deal highlights the difference in territorial aspirations between unionists and nationalists. For unionists, and for the British Government, this is the end of the devolution process. At the press conference this morning, Gordon Brown referred to ‘closing the last chapter’ and Peter Robinson to ‘the completion of devolution’. Although further autonomy is possible within the UK, for example federalism, this is not on the unionist agenda.

Of course nationalists think differently and for them today is another step along the road to a united Ireland. Martin McGuinness made this clear in his contribution to the press conference, although I would have been worried by Brian Cowen’s comment on a ‘federal future’ for the people of these islands, perhaps indicating that he’s more than happy with an arms’ length relationship between the two Irish jurisdictions. We may hear a lot more nationalist rhetoric from Sinn Féin and the SDLP, as they try to convince their supporters that that a united Ireland is still a practical possibility as well as a legitimate aspiration. This won’t improve cohesion either inside or outside the Assembly. I’m pleased, and surprised, that devolution didn’t fall apart this week. But we are still stuck with the same sectarian parties playing to their separate electorates.

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Jenny Muir is a lecturer who lives and works in Belfast. You can also contact Jenny through e-mail: s.belfastATyahooDOTcoDOTuk

7 Responses

  1. Tom Griffin

    February 5, 2010 6:11 pm

    I think in terms of the UK context, the outlook for further devolution might be reasonably hopeful.

    Further tax-raising powers for Scotland are on the agenda for all of the major parties in one way or another following the Calman Commission. If it happens, it will strengthen the case for it in the north. The challenge is likely to be keeping the pace, much more than pushing the envelope of the overall settlement.

  2. Tombuktu

    February 7, 2010 11:32 am

    I worry that the referral of a final decision on the parades to a working group amounts to the deferral of a collapse.

    First, I don’t see how a working group will find a solution that has been eluding the parties since the discussions on final devolution for so long.

    Second, it leaves the door open for some in the DUP to walk away at a later date (on a basis along the lines of “that is not what we accepted on 5 February”).

  3. Jenny Muir

    February 7, 2010 6:51 pm

    Tom – I personally would like to see a federal UK, along with stronger links between the two Irish jurisdictions. As you say, the biggest degree of difference is currently in Scotland and this process may continue. My point was rather more that the unionist parties are not thinking along these lines, although it would be interesting to see if the situation changes if we ever got a Sinn Fein First MInister.

    Tombuktu – I agree: it’s looking more and more likely that the biggest weakness of a very weak deal is going to be the parades situation.

  4. Jenny Muir

    February 11, 2010 9:41 pm

    Yes, that was interesting, and fair play to David Adams for participating in that conference.

    As someone who actually moved to Belfast from North London because I feel so at home here, I do find the opinions of London republicans somewhat one-dimensional. I hope they give Adams the welcome he deserves.

  5. krupskaya

    February 11, 2010 11:50 pm

    I am sure they will give both Adams the welcome they deserve.

    As Davy Adams says, he’s been advising Sinn Fein that they need to engage more with Unionists, even though he admits to some concern that they might successfully take up his advice.

    It seems certain that one of the most well-attended sessions will be on developing a dialogue with unionism.