Saturday 17 August 2019

Deal cements real progress post peace process

From left, Theresa Villiers, David Cameron, Peter Robinson and Martin
From left, Theresa Villiers, David Cameron, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness

Liz O’Donnell

A benign aspect of the peace process these days is that nothing much happens. Time passes slowly, particularly in the fallow periods when the power-sharing institutions are semi-suspended, as they have been for the last 10 weeks, to allow talks to resolve the latest political "crisis" in Northern Ireland.

It could have been another false dawn. But for a change, Sinn Féin and the DUP, with the help of the two governments, have brokered a potentially transformative deal. In it, for once, the economy gets "box office"; a refreshing change from the logjam on welfare reform and the old quarrels over paramilitaries and "the past".

"A fresh start" may sound a tad eulogistic, particularly for victims' groups whose issues have yet again been parked unresolved for another day.

However, it would be churlish to underestimate what has been agreed. The commitment to enhanced formal cross-Border security to tackle paramilitaries and organised crime marks a significant alignment of approach by Sinn Féin and the DUP. The test of this will be in the detail worked out by the two justice departments.

The decision to set up a new oversight body on paramilitaries is an overdue response to the recent security assessment by the independent review body that the IRA was still in existence with a command structure and access to weapons. Such a finding would have justified the DUP storming out of the executive in the old days. Instead, Peter Robinson opted to stay the course and to find a way forward in negotiations.

But agreement to allow Northern Ireland adjust downwards its corporation tax rate from 20pc to 12.5pc with effect from April 2018 in line with the rate in the Republic is a welcome boost to business in Northern Ireland and could be the catalyst to energise the private sector and generate thousands of jobs.

The much-heralded "economic dividend" of the peace process has been slow to materialise, although Invest NI has had some hard-won success in attracting high-value technology investment. The enhanced tax incentive will give a lift to those foreign direct investment (FDI) efforts. Notably, the IDA, despite the prospect of competition from Northern Ireland, has been magnanimous. The Irish official position is what's good for Northern Ireland is good for the whole island.

Legislation has already been passed to enable the devolution of those tax powers but the British government has wisely made the move conditional on the stabilising of the Northern Ireland executive and resolution of the political crisis which brought the power-sharing government to the brink of collapse. It is a significant concession by the British government, particularly given the potential knock-on impact on other regions in the UK which remain locked into the higher corporation tax regime. Making an exception of the North is recognition of the unique economic difficulties which beset post-conflict Northern Ireland and its shared landmass with the Republic.

The move will effectively blur the Border, as it applies to corporation tax incentives for foreign direct investment. But it is a boost for indigenous entrepreneurs and the wider business community in Northern Ireland. For too long there has been an over-reliance on the public sector for employment and indeed for social supports such as social welfare payments. The best way out of poverty and unemployment is a real job, not welfare.

For Sinn Féin and the DUP to agree such a comprehensive deal indicates enhanced political maturity and pragmatism, instead of the usual ideological and tribal standoffs that have been such a feature of politics in Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin will be taunted north and south for signing up to welfare reform, or "cuts". But they can bluster and blame the nasty Tory government for imposing austerity. The truth is, both sides have done U-turns to break the deadlock and avert the collapse of the executive. There is parity of pain and parity of gain.

Although anticipated, Peter Robinson's announcement of his retirement from politics was still a shock. He has been a key player in unionism for 40 years, featuring in strategy and stunts going back to the scuppering of the Sunningdale power-sharing government in 1974, opposition to the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement and the infamous Clontibret "incursion" in 1986. He succeeded Ian Paisley (both pictured right) as leader and first minister in 2008 and has struggled to keep the show on the road despite a series of crises, including losing his East Belfast Westminster seat in 2010.

THe winning back of that seat by his protégé Gavin Robinson earlier this year was a box that needed to be ticked, as well as leaving the executive in a more stable state. Ill health and recent unproven claims linking him to a controversial Nama portfolio sale have been draining.

His long career has had many twists and turns. From being a hard-line rejectionist of the political settlement represented by the Good Friday Agreement, he has ended up in a leadership role implementing it and the Stormont power-sharing government. This shift into progressive unionist politics has lost him the support of the fundamentalists in the DUP.

His relationship with Martin McGuinness has been tense at times but by all accounts civil and mutually respectful. In contrast, rival unionists in the UUP are vicious. UUP leader Mike Nesbitt has been dining out on Robinson's discomfort, even stealing a dash on the first minister by being first to withdraw his party from the executive after the PSNI assessment of IRA involvement in the murder of republican Kevin McGuigan.

Hammering out this deal on corporation tax and other big ticket issues such as paramilitaries and welfare reform has provided a timely cue to exit the political stage. He has committed to stay and bed down what has been agreed. Not many leaders are graced with such a finale. Sinn Féin were gracious about his contribution to the peace process and in leading his party to stable power-sharing.

Attention has already moved on to succession. Gun jumpers are even speculating that Sinn Féin could overtake the DUP at the next elections, which would elevate Martin McGuinness to first minister. To his credit, when asked, McGuinness said he didn't think much about titles and if that situation arose he would be happy to change the title to joint first minister. It's the little con-cessions volunt-arily made which mean a lot.

Irish Independent

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