Friday 24 January 2020

Martina Devlin: 'After three years of deadlock, politicians in North remember how to compromise'

Analysis

Open for business: Stormont’s doors are swinging open to power-sharing. Photo: AP Photo
Open for business: Stormont’s doors are swinging open to power-sharing. Photo: AP Photo
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Ulster Says Yes. Not a wholehearted yes, not a "let joy be unconfin'd" yes or a "let's do a happy dance" yes - more an "ach, all right" resigned sort of yes. But that's an advance on Ulster Says No. And perhaps "ach, all right" is appropriate since the deal gives language status to Ulster-Scots.

So, yes to compromise and power-sharing - yes to Stormont back in business after three years of the shutters being down and a 'gone fishing' sign dangling off the front door. The usual "sell-out" reaction has frothed from some unionist quarters, but this has been a harder deal for nationalism to back. However, the alternative is to be branded unco-operative and for fatigued citizens to trudge through another election.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said yesterday her party was anxious to return to business in the Northern institutions. "Now we build complete power-sharing," she warned - a reference to the failures of good faith which led to collapse three years ago.

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The job was to be co-operative and collegiate, she said. "Are we able for that? Absolutely. I hope every other political party and political leader is in the space that we are in today."

So, in the end, accommodation happened, mainly from the nationalist side judging by watered-down proposals for the Irish language and tinkering with rather than reforming the Petition of Concern. In fairness, unionism budged a bit too because some are threatened by the Irish language having a legal position in the Northern state, as it now does. But the DUP said yes more quickly than Sinn Féin, which tells its own story.

The deal has no standalone Acht na Gaeilge, which Sinn Féin was pushing for, giving Irish equal status with English as promised in the St Andrew's Agreement of 2006. And there is a potential unionist veto on recommendations from the new Irish Language Commissioner. The First Minister has to agree to any proposals from the commissioner - a test of Arlene Foster's claim there is space for both identities in Northern Ireland. But she could use it as a trust-building opportunity, and if she behaves in a spirit of generosity it will pay dividends.

The nationalist side was disappointed at the failure to include bilingual signs on public buildings and roads - making Irish visible as well as legal. However, there is a right to use Irish in the Assembly with translation facilities available and we must presume "curry my yoghurt" jibes won't be tolerated.

Many people in the Republic are amazed at the passion felt about an Irish language act in the North, but its importance hinges on respect and parity of esteem for Irish identity. There will also be an Ulster-British or Ulster-Scots Commissioner as a conciliatory gesture.

Dr Niall Comer, president of Conradh na Gaeilge, called it a "historic advancement for our community and for those who wish to use the language". Doing a hard sell, Tánaiste Simon Coveney said "we have found a way for the Irish language in Northern Ireland" and he has a point.

But it's far below what was promised in the St Andrew's Agreement. Overall, it can be filed under the constructive ambiguity category. Still, it's a start.

Other shortfalls include the cash-for-ash scandal remaining unsettled - no whisper of the report being published - but there are safeguards for oversight of ministerial conduct and that of their special advisers who had too much power.

The bribe of a serious amount of capital spending will help to sweeten compromises. The Irish Government is contributing some €110m over three years for projects such as the A5 upgrade and Border greenways, and there is talk of a high-speed rail link between Dublin and Belfast and onwards to Cork, although upgrading the Enterprise train seems more practical.

Sinn Féin was highly motivated to sell this deal to its base. The party is facing into a general election in the Republic, probably next month, and it won't want to be accused of an inability to power-share in the North. Not least because it wants to power-share in the Republic.

A new concept of Ulster-British identity is referenced in the deal and is now tripping fluently from Ms Foster's lips. Britishness is already a hybrid identity, never mind refining it yet again. Still, it might reassure some who feel under threat by the increasing prospect of Irish reunification and the inescapable proof of British indifference to the North. Ulster-Irish would be a more sensible construct for unionism.

Incidentally, the Taoiseach claims that resistance to Fine Gael's idea for an official commemoration for the RIC, grumpily shelved, pushed back prospects for a united Ireland. In fact, the visceral response of the Irish public could equally be interpreted as support for unity.

In the four weeks following the UK general election, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Julian Smith used his time effectively, working hard with Mr Coveney - who has had his shoulder to the wheel consistently and is an asset to his party - to produce this agreement. It couldn't have happened without support from both governments. But the British government wasn't on board until after the DUP's whip hand at Westminster was amputated.

The draft document - New Decade, New Approach - was tabled by the Irish and British governments on Thursday night and basically tries to second-guess potential problems and offer solutions.

Mr Smith pointedly waved the cash inducement flag: "The money is there," he said. And to ensure that the public knew who to blame if the deal was rejected, he repeatedly reminded people that MLAs were paid for the past three years.

As another nudge along paths of righteousness, it was suggested that the financial package on offer would end the nurses' strike in the North by offering immediate pay equality with their counterparts in Britain. Nurses began their third day of industrial action yesterday.

The Petition of Concern, designed to protect minorities but abused as a veto to block progress, was ripe for reform but that hasn't happened yet. It's been remodelled but loopholes haven't been closed off.

Nevertheless, some good ideas are contained in the deal, such as longer cooling-off periods if collapse looks imminent again and a party leaders' forum where potential issues of political tension can be flagged. An Office of Identity and Cultural Expression is intended to promote reconciliation - recognition of the abject failure to deliver this essential condition.

From the Sinn Féin side, this deal doesn't look substantially different to the previous one, but the party recognises it is crucial to return to Stormont.

One development worth celebrating, however, is the Emma DeSouza factor - the Derrywoman whom officialdom tried to part from her American husband.

The deal accepts that Irish citizens need no longer go through the Kafkaesque nonsense of declaring themselves British and then relinquishing their Britishness before claiming EU citizen rights to be with their families. Finally, her yes to Jake is respected.

Irish Independent

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