From Irish Political Review: November 2006

Agreement At St. Andrew's
"Daft", "crazy" and "unworkable" ?

The Agreement at St Andrew's presented by the British and Irish Governments set out the core changes and steps to be taken to restore the political institutions in Northern Ireland. The core issues are: support by Sinn Fein for policing, and proposed accountability measures in the Executive, Assembly, North-South Ministerial Council (NSMC) and British-Irish Council (BIC) to meet the concerns of the DUP.

The changes to the Good Friday Agreement are set out within 5 Annexes and are summarized at the end of this article.


Stability / External Pressure: Northern Irish communal based politics is dysfunctional in respect of the disciplines of governing. With the possible exception of Sinn Fein (evolving as a potential junior party of Government in the Republic of Ireland), the Northern Ireland parties cannot evolve as genuine governmental parties. They are there to represent 'their side'. As such the Executive, if formed, will require almost constant external pressure from the two Governments (and perhaps the US, the EU and others). It will not be a stable arrangement, and will require the regular investment of significant political capital by British and Irish governing parties to 'keep the show on the road'.

The leaders of the two parties that will run Northern Ireland still have not met, shaken hands, collaborated in any way or agreed on any measure (other than unilaterally with the Government).

Shared Future: The Shared Future document (this is the document which declared that "separate but equal is no longer sustainable") agreed by the British Government in March 2005 will almost certainly be a dead letter. It can be assumed that a sectarian carve up of resources will become the norm again. The effective state funding of communal / sectarian politics will also aggravate tension in the society—with up to 500 people directly paid to represent the communal interest.


Accountability: The accountability measures agreed are identical to those published in the earlier 'Comprehensive Agreement' of December 2004. These, in essence, seek to address DUP concerns on the autonomy of Executive Ministers and the inability of the Assembly or the Executive to countermand Ministerial decisions within their own 'fiefdom'. The concern is that the language in the Agreement is from the British school of 'creative ambiguity' and is capable of a range of interpretations. It may be possible for the British legislation of the Ministerial Code to clarify this issue, but legislating for the Code will represent a difficult tightrope to walk.

In essence, the DUP trenchantly asserts that the changes to have curbed the ability of (Sinn Fein) Ministers to take autonomous Ministerial decisions. Sinn Fein consider that Ministerial autonomy remains largely intact. Both cannot be simultaneously correct.

At minimum, it can be anticipated that the Programme for Government, which does require cross-community consent, will be haggled over in minute detail and will provide ample opportunity to 'deadlock' the institutions.

Sean Farren of the SDLP has recently described the changes proposed by the DUP as "daft" "crazy" and "unworkable"—and capable of bringing about gridlock in the institutions.

Efficiency Panel & the Review of Public Administration: One real democratic gain under Direct Rule has been the provision for a new 'grown up' framework for local Government. This was to have provided additional and strategic Council powers to 7 new 'super Councils' (replacing the current, toothless, 26 Councils), within a statutory 'political fairness' framework. The Efficiency Review Panel will almost certainly seek to increase the number of Councils, undermining their scale and delivery capacity and returning to the diseconomies of the current system. The crude motivation is the retention of the parties' councillor base. The loss of the RPA (although not a perfect reform) will be a significant price. The RPA proposals could have evolved into a useful framework within which to develop progressive local political activity.

Community designations: Within the Assembly, the sectarian designations system (and a voting mechanism which formally discriminates against any nascent 'third strand') remains wholly intact, stimulating a 'two tribes' outlook. With the de facto state funding of communal based politics, it can be taken for granted that community polarization—which has markedly increased since the 1994 ceasefires—will continue and possibly accelerate. Sectarian geography is likely to harden further.


Anti Poverty and social exclusion Strategy: It is unclear why the publication of this Strategy should be a British Government function. Such as strategy was published by Mo Mowlam in 1997 and has made little or no impact. The local Northern Ireland parties may be ill-suited to produce such a strategy, but it ought to be their job to do so.

Bill of Rights Forum: It should be noted that Northern Ireland has already had 6 years of consultation on the Bill of Rights. This is within the dispensation of the British Government to deliver, although it is probably not minded to legislate on the matter—and wedded to the unwritten British Constitution. A Forum is likely to be a talking shop unless it is given a very tight remit and short time limit to produce its views.


Endorsement: There is contention about the means by which these new provisions are electorally endorsed. The DUP require an election to move into a 'mandatory' government—as well as to 'clean out' the communal Protestant stable. Taoiseach Ahern may like a referendum in the South for purely electoral gain. With the Southern election likely by May 2007, a referendum following March would allow Fianna Fail to claim to have 'sorted' the North. The Republic's Attorney General will give advice on the Constitutional necessity of the Referendum, should matters proceed.


Financial Package: The potential financial package is predicated on the "process of necessary reform". This is code for the particularly brutal and aggressive programme of privatization led by the Strategic Investment Board which has resulted from the Reinvestment and Reform Initiative—agreed by all parties in the last functioning Executive, probably without realising what they were unleashing. The Chancellor will meet the Northern Ireland parties in early November and again stress that the package will come as an ideologically dogmatic form of extremist Thatcherism—or not at all.

Rate Capping: The cap on rates proposed, although argued on the basis of people who have a valuable capital asset (a big house in a well off area, for instance) will disproportionately benefit the richest in society—probably focused on the most valuable 1-2% of homes. Although it will be hard to resist a "Parity with Great Britain" argument, this will not be a progressive step, from a democratic socialist perspective. As few people fully understand the mechanics, the measure will be of electoral benefit to the DUP—that 'Paisley fixed the rates for us'.


Policing and Security: There is no agreement on a date for the devolution of policing and justice, which will represent a significant hurdle for Republicans. There are many reservations about the British statement on the handover, to MI5, of national security in Northern Ireland. Concern will remain about the degree to which British security services holding a lead role in intelligence, through MI5, could act to undermine a fragile local democracy. Since the Good Friday Agreement, the experience of those who have had relatives murdered by the security forces—through the Stevens, Corey and Barron reports, as well as those who have sought redress through the Police Ombudsman, Nuala O'Loan, have all failed to get adequate information from British security services. The involvement of MI5 at the "unique interface in Northern Ireland between national security and serious/organized crime" would, most likely, widen the prospect for undermining confidence in locally accountable policing.


Academic Selection: The side deal to remove the ban on academic selection, to keep the DUP onside, represents a shoddy piece of vandalism of many years of painstaking educational reform work. As the divisions on academic selection within the main parties reflect communal patterns, with Unionists advocating retention of selection (despite Protestant working class areas suffering most under the current selective, and socially segregated system) and Nationalists advocating change—this provides for effective deadlock on a core educational issue.


The St Andrew's process may represent the last throw of the dice for 'Northern Ireland-ism'. No major British or Irish Party has, to date, been willing to face the basic, dysfunctional nature of communal/sectarian based politics. Unless Sinn Fein make a breakthrough within the Republic's 2007 election, politics in Northern Ireland will remain disconnected from the business of Government of either of the two sovereign states who, effectively, sponsor the process. The continued indulgence by both Governments of dysfunctional politics indicates that no main political party in Britain or Ireland has been able to stand out from the crowd and put communal politics on short notice. For the moment, developing an inter-governmental alternative to 'Northern Ireland-ism' is being trumped by 'arms length'.
Mark Langhammer


ANNEX A Practical changes to the operation of the Institutions

Strand 1

* Provision of a Statutory Ministerial Code:
* New system of Assembly Referrals for Executive Review
* Amendments to the Pledge of Office
* New provisions on appointment of Ministers in the Executive
* Functions of the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister (transferring functions of OFMDFM)
* Committee of the Centre: to be put on statutory basis
* Institutional Review Committee to be formed
* Efficiency Review Panel, to be appointed by OFMDFM
* Repeal of Northern Ireland Act 2000 (ie the 'Mandelson Act')
* Community Designation: restricting MLAs from changing designation, in the manner previous undertaken, chameleon like, by the Women's Coalition.

Strand 2 and 3

* New Executive role in preparation for North South Ministerial Council (NSMC) and British Irish Council (BIC) meetings
* Circulation of NSMC and BIC decision papers to Executive, and potential provision for Executive discussion (based on interpretation of accountability measures) on same.
* Statutory obligation on Ministers (or nominees) attendance at NSMC and BIC meetings
* Review Group on a) Efficiency of implementation bodies and b) the case for additional bodies
* Annual Assembly / Oireachtas scrutiny of implementation bodies
* Aspiration for a North South Parliamentary Forum
* Provision for Independent (civic society) Consultative Forum
* Suggestion by 2 Governments to facilitate a standing secretariat for the British/Irish Council
* East West Inter Parliamentary Framework

ANNEX B Human Rights, Equality, Victims and Other Issues

* British Government to publish an Anti Poverty and Social Exclusion Strategy
* British Government to legislate for a Victims Commissioner for NI
* Establish a Forum on a Bill of Rights by December 2006
* Preparation of a Single Equality Bill for the incoming Executive
* British Government to legislate for an Irish Language Act
* Aspiration to enhance Ulster Scots language
* British Consultation with parties on the Terms of Reference for Parades Review
* British guidance for employers to reduce barriers to employment & re-integration of prisoners
* 50/50% police recruitment to lapse when the Patten target of 30% Catholics in PSNI is met
* Additional powers for the Human Rights Commission
* Legislation by the end of 2006 for access to EU Nationals to posts in NI Civil Service
* Westminster NI Grand Committee to meet in Northern Ireland

ANNEX C Financial Package for the Executive

* Chancellor Brown to meet all parties
* Consider further North South economic co-operation & joint investment initiatives
* Introduce a cap on domestic rates under new Capital Values system
* Introduce further rate reliefs for low income pensioners

ANNEX D Timetable for Implementation

* 17 October New Programme for Government Committee meets
* 20/21 October: Westminster legislation
* 10 November: Indications by the parties of general assent
* 24 November: Assembly meets to nominate FM/DFM
* January: IMC Report
* March: Electoral endorsement
* 14 March: Executive nominated by party leaders
* 26 March: Power devolved, d'Hondt run

ANNEX E Future National Security Arrangements in Northern Ireland: Paper by British Government

* Responsibility for National Security matters (these are not devolved matters) in Northern Ireland passes to MI5 in late 2007
* PSNI co-located with Security personnel
* Security Service and Ombudsman's Office to seek agreement on Ombudsman access to sensitive information
* Publication of 'high level' MoU's between PSNI and Security Services
* Commissioners to oversee covert work in Northern Ireland
- Intelligence Services Commissioner
- Interception of Communications Commissioner
- Surveillance Commissioner
* Investigatory Powers Tribunal (complaints against security services)
* Consideration of how Parliamentary Intelligence & Security Committee should focus on Northern Ireland
* Government acceptance of 5 key principles set out by PSNI Chief Constable

Side Deals: In addition to the 'Agreement at St Andrew's' by the two Governments, the British Government has confirmed that it agreed a 'side deal' with the DUP to the effect that the provisions in the 2006 Education Order to outlaw academic selection education at secondary level (Northern Ireland retains a discredited '11+' test to facilitate the continuation of selective (grammar schools). It has been further speculated (by Frank Millar in the Irish Times, amongst others) that a British side deal with Sinn Fein may include the 'On the Runs' issue and a side deal with the Irish Government on facilitating speaking rights in the Dail for Northern MPs in line with the All Party Oireachtas Committee report on the constitution.

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