On Tuesday afternoon the British and Irish governments announced a new deal for Stormont [Northern Ireland’s parliament], bringing an end to months of political deadlock and ten weeks of crisis talks.
Just before 5pm (12pm EST) at a press conference in Stormont Castle, Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan and Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers announced “A Fresh Start for Northern Ireland,” a 68-page agreement that had been worked through intense negotiations with all Northern Ireland parties.
A stalemate began in Stormont in March, with the failure of Sinn Féin to accept the Stormont House Agreement (SHA), a welfare reform bill previously agreed on in December 2014.
The latest crisis talks, however, started during the summer months because of claims of paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland by Police Service of Northern Ireland chief constable George Hamilton following the murders Jock Davison and Kevin McGuigan.
The claims caused First Minister of Northern Ireland and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) Peter Robinson to step aside from his position in Northern Ireland’s Government in September, taking the majority of his Ministers with him.
The new agreement, overseen by Villiers and Flanagan throughout 10 weeks and more than 150 talk sessions, will implement many aspects of the previously failed SHA and will address concerns over the continued existence of paramilitary groups, as well as establishing a cross-border agency to deal with organized crime, border crime and smuggling.
Speaking at Stormont this afternoon, Minister Flanagan said: “Last Sunday marked the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
“It is therefore apt that only two days later we can welcome another milestone agreement that moves Northern Ireland towards a better, more stable future, building in the foundations laid by the Anglo Irish Agreement.”
“A strategy to achieve this will be put in place and an international body will be established to report on the achievement of progress towards ending continuing paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland,” Flanagan continued.
Elected representatives have fresh obligations under the new agreement to look to the end of all forms of paramilitary activity and groups in Northern Ireland society and a new high-level tripartite task force, which will involves agencies from the North, Republic and Britain, will be constructed to deal specifically with cross-border crime.
The British government also will make $761 million (£500 million) available to Stormont to deal with issues that specifically relate to Northern Ireland, such as the removal of “peace walls” in Belfast, and new measures will further deal with the issue of flags and parades throughout the North.
In terms of the economic aspects of the agreement, the new deal will allow for a full devolution of corporate tax power by 2018 reducing the rate of tax in Northern Ireland to 12.5 per cent, the same rate as the Republic.
The agreement also recommits to the construction of the A5, a major road to run between Dublin and the North West/Derry which the Irish government had previously allocated $426 million (€400 million) before withdrawing funding during the recession.
“This is not only important for economic development in Northern Ireland but also for building an all island economy that creates jobs and prosperity for all our citizens,” stated Flanagan.
The DUP and Sinn Féin, as two of the largest parties, have the strength to bring the new deal through the Executive and Assembly (the two houses in Northern Ireland parliament) but it is still to be seen if other parties, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), the Ulster Unionist Party and Alliance, will accept the deal.
Put forward by the DUP, the SHA initially failed to pass through the assembly earlier this year because of Sinn Féin’s refusal to accept the welfare reforms outlined.
When the DUP once again failed to pass legislation to implement these welfare reforms in June, the threat arose that NI government departments could run out of money.
At the time, DUP Finance Minister Arlene Foster was under pressure to approve a Northern Irish budget. The DUP made it clear that they would not support a budget without the implementation of welfare changes outlined in SHA with Nationalist parties, in turn, stressing that they were not happy to implement them, resulting in a stalemate.
The new agreement hopes to now implement measures that will not leave a $913 million (£600 million) hole in the budget because of this lack of welfare reform.
One controversial aspect of the SHA that the new agreement does not deal with are “legacy issues” - information on British state killings and collusion.
Under the previous SHA, an Historical Investigations Unit was to be established to investigate killings during the Troubles. An Independent Commission on Information Retrieval was also to help people discover the truth of what happened to their loved ones.
Sinn Féin and the SDLP, however, had argued that the British would prevent this from happening in pretence of ensuring national security.
“The British government are trying to hide behind this label of national security,” Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness complained.
Speaking about its absence from the new agreement, Secretary of State Villiers said: “It continues to be a significant sticking point. We will continue working on it.”
The most recent crisis talks began following the claim of the Police Service of Northern Ireland chief constable George Hamilton that former or current IRA members were involved the recent death of ex-IRA man, Kevin McGuigan.
McGuigan, father of nine, was murdered in the Short Strand area of Belfast on August 12, in what is believed to be a revenge killing for the earlier murder of a leading IRA figure Jock Davidson in an internal Republican feud.
Hamilton’s claim led to UUP leader Mike Nesbitt withdrawing his single minister from the Northern Ireland Executive, which in turn led to Peter Robinson stepping aside as Deputy First Minister and the resignation of all his DUP ministers but for Arlene Foster who remained as Minister of Finance.
To avoid Ministries being allocated to other parties however, the Ministers returned to serve on an “in out” basis in which they would spend a couple of hours a week in their roles.
At today’s press conference, Minister Flanagan concluded: “Devolved government in Northern Ireland is now placed on a more sustainable footing; this, together with the firm commitment to working for the ending paramilitarism, will help build the peaceful, reconciled, prosperous Northern Ireland its people deserve. “