After ten weeks of intense talks, power sharing in Northern Ireland has been saved by a new agreement amongst local parties. Titled “A Fresh Start – The Stormont Implementation Agreement Plan”, it details a number of concessions made both by and to Sinn Fein and the DUP. The document ensures that power sharing stays standing in the form of the local devolved government rather than London having to step in and rule Northern Ireland directly from Westminster in the absence of local political consensus.
Stormont had been left teetering on the brink of collapse after DUP leader Peter Robinson stood down as First Minister in September to protest an apparent IRA execution on the streets of Belfast. A number of Unionist politicians resigned and plunged the parliament into a state of uncertainty over the last two months.
At the core of the new agreement is that Sinn Fein has relaxed their stance on welfare reform. As a hard left party, with some Marxist strands among its membership, they have previously fiercely rejected Conservative plans to implement austerity in Northern Ireland as they have in England with cuts to unemployment benefits and disability allowances. Sinn Fein has now agreed to accept less money for welfare from the British government, on the condition that Stormont tries to soften the blow to welfare recipients by plugging the gap through savings made by other departments. Exactly how these savings will be made has yet to be specified.
Similarly, the DUP has softened their stance on the IRA and agreed to a new commission being established to deal with paramilitarism in Northern Ireland. However, the commission will have very few powers on the issue and appears largely symbolic, prompting the leader of the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice party Jim Allister to accuse the DUP of “sweeping murder under the carpet”.
Both parties have also secured an additional £500m for Stormont’s budget, which has already been earmarked for special needs schools and greater transport development. A number of commissions will also be established to consider whether Belfast’s “peace walls” can finally come down, as well as the political use of flags and other contentious emblems.
Crucially, the thorny issue of what responsibility the state has for victims of the Troubles and how it should help them has been left ignored. The contentious issue has been dividing politicians for years with both the DUP and Sinn Fein clashing over who counts as an official “victim” in any state programmes of support. The majority of Northern Ireland’s political parties have pushed for anyone who suffered under the conflict to be helped, while the DUP have argued for only “innocent” people who have never engaged in any violence to be eligible for state compensation or help. The Agreement’s failure to address this issue essentially kicks it into the long grass without holding the DUP responsible for the current void in help for victims.
On balance, the Agreement represents a significant win for the DUP. While they have compromised on the IRA threat, the issue is largely a symbolic one in Northern Ireland rather than one which represents genuine impending harm. Equally, the British and Irish governments have agreed to conveniently ignore their role in blocking help for victims due to the DUP’s dispute about the definition of victimhood. On the other hand, Sinn Fein’s acceptance of a cut to the welfare bill represents a significant climb down and one which will be hard to sell to their hard-left membership and voters.
Indeed, the number of concessions to the DUP by the British government perhaps reflects wider tensions within UK and indeed international politics. Given the Conservatives’ slim majority of just 12 MPs, the DUP’s 8 MPs could prove crucial in supporting the government in the House of Commons, particularly as the parliamentary term continues and rebellious backbenchers grow in confidence. Despite having 4 MPs, Sinn Fein famously boycott Westminster by refusing to take their seats and so hold no bargaining power in the chamber. The DUP voted against Cameron’s 2013 proposed intervention in Syria, a vote which the prime minister lost by just 13 votes. If Cameron is considering raising a similar issue again in the chamber as part of an increased international effort in Syria following the tragedy of last week’s Paris attacks, then having DUP support for government action could prove crucial in ensuring it passes in the chamber.
Amid reports that Cameron has begun canvassing support from parties across the chamber for a new vote on military action in Syria, it will be interesting to see whether he succeeds in winning over the DUP and whether the concessions in the new Northern Ireland agreement will have played any part in that.