Against the backdrop of the discussion about terrorism and responses to it in Western Europe, an important political event occurred in Northern Ireland that went almost unnoticed. A crisis which lasted two and a half months, threatening pre-term regional elections and even the implementation of direct governance from London, came to an end. The two major parties – Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party – managed to sign a new agreement with the participation of the British and Irish governments. However, despite its expressive title, “A Fresh Start,” it left one very important issue unresolved alongside the impression that this has all happened before.
A new crisis
Articles about political events in Northern Ireland are always difficult to write because there is no unambiguous reference point and it is constantly necessary to contextualize every detail. Any narrative can turn into an endless sequence of refinements. Here, each new agreement is the result of a crisis the seeds of which were planted by a previous agreement. And the same problems can run like a red thread through several agreements and crises. The situation today serves as a prime example of this pattern.
The deterioration of the situation was originally connected to two murders which occurred in May and August. In them was seen confirmation that the Irish Republican Army (IRA) continued to exist, numerous announcements to the contrary notwithstanding. Additionally, the cessation of the IRA’s activities was one of the principal conditions for the start of the work of the “united” (including Republican and Unionist representatives) government.
In consequence, in late August, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) left the government of Northern Ireland. And in early September the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) followed suit. To avoid the provocation of a full-scale crisis with pre-term elections and the possibility of losing the functions of self-government, the DUP left only Arlene Foster, Acting First Minister and Minister for Finance and Personnel.
However, the discussion about the IRA soon became little more than a pretext for the resurrection of a whole barrel of disagreements that had not been fully worked out before. Moreover, it became clear then that many mechanisms adopted in the 2013-14 agreement were not working. (Europe Insight has written in detail about, what seemed to be, the final Stormont Agreement.)
Republicans and Unionists inflated the agenda with renegotiations of a number of issues, including welfare reform, the fight against cross-broder crime, attitudes towards crimes of the past and various other topics. As a result, “A Fresh Start”, signed on 17 November, is 67 pages long while the Stormont Agreement it is based on, adopted in December 2014 and then called “a new start” on the UK government’s homepage, was 14 pages plus a five page annex.
A new agreement
“A Fresh Start” consists of six sections and seven annexes to the final section. The underlying idea for the document is to yet again demonstrate adherence to previously achieved agreements and designate clear steps for the solution of each contested issue. In distinction from previous agreements, this one has been signed not between the region’s main parties but between the governments of Great Britain, Ireland and Northern Ireland. The government of Northern Ireland represented Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party. The remaining three parties did not participate in the talks.
The main agreements are as follows:
Section A. Organised crime
- Agree to hold a tri-lateral Ministerial meeting in December;
- Form a task force headed by one representative from each side;
- Work to disband all paramilitary groups;
- Create a body for monitoring anti-paramilitary activities.
Section B. Public finances
- Continue cutting government spending, including through the reduction of civil service staff and abolishing departments;
- Starting in April 2018, tax on corporations will be 12.5%, which is the same as the rate in Ireland.
Section C. Social welfare
- Great Britain will allocate £585m over the next four years in compensation to those most affected by the reduction in welfare payments and tax credits.
Section D. UK financial obligations
- Great Britain will provide funding for the civil service staff reduction, programmes for social adaptation and integration in the region, expanding planned implementation for welfare reform, financing the struggle against armed groups, and the removal of walls dividing the community.
Section E. Ireland’s financial obligations
- Continuing to support infrastructural, primarily transport, projects between North and South, including through the use of European Union funds.
Section F. Implementation of other aspects of the Stormont Agreement
- Establishment of the Commission on Flags (for determining which flags should be hung, when and where) will be postponed until March 2016 (originally set for June 2015);
- Measures for resolving the controversy over the Unionists and Republicans’ parades must be proposed in a paper (when not indicated);
- The sides remain committed to the idea of finding a solution with regard to the attitude towards past crimes, but they could not come to an agreement on what steps should be taken.
“A Fresh Start” produced mixed feelings in the majority of those who observed the course of the negotiations. It is easy to see genuine accomplishments, for example, the reduction of taxes on corporations to the level in Ireland and additional financing from Great Britain for help with solving various problems, including social welfare payments and preparedness for taking on organised crime.
But no one has been able to agree on what the reason really was for the current governmental crisis. The question about the relationship to crimes of the past has remained unanswered. And, as the paper Irish Times mentioned, this is only the fifth time since 2009.
In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson blamed the lack of success on perennial adversaries Sinn Féin. Such a predictable statement failed to impress social organisations representing those who have suffered from years of conflict. In particular, the Victims & Survivors Forum asked all negotiation participants to apologise for being incapable of reaching a consensus.
However, Robinson’s statement is symptomatic of a more serious phenomenon, hardly just a single unmet objective. Made only two days after the laboriously attained agreement, it illustrates how hard it is for both parties to make compromises and shows that the gap is still great between them. Not to mention the fact that other political parties, including the UUP and SDLP were skeptical of the negotiations and are still studying the document in order to take their final decision as to whether or not to accede.
On the BBC Ulster radio programme Talkback, listeners proposed calling the agreement the “Groundhog Day Deal”, underscoring thereby that in general it is a repetition of previous documents. The usual crisis ended in the usual agreement, which, of course, clearly indicates that new trials should already be expected ahead.