It was a surprising development when Secretary of State Julian Smith and Tánaiste Simon Coveney briefed an eager assembly of journalists at the foot of Stormont last Thursday to announce that a deal had been reached for the proposed return to devolution in Northern Ireland. In the firm grip of both men was the sealed document with the optimistic heading ‘New Decade, New Approach’. This was now the agreed blueprint upon which the NI parties could infuse a new lease of life into the devolved institutions, following their three years of dormancy.
The swift endorsement of the proposed agreement by the five main parties was a further point of intrigue. In particular, for both the DUP and Sinn Féin, it was they who bore the brunt of the bitter-edged cold with their disappointing December general election results (down 5.4% and 6.7% respectively since the 2017 general election.) If no agreement had been reached between the parties, the Secretary of State would now be processing the details of an Assembly election – a prospect which was not at all appealing to either the DUP or Sinn Féin, hence the burning of last week’s midnight oil.
Now that it has garnered both cross-party and inter-governmental approval, the agreement anticipates action will be taken to affect the proposals contained within the confines of the document itself. The new decade is here; the people of Northern Ireland now need to see evidence of this ‘new approach’. It’s a vague term in itself – even by Northern Ireland standards. Have the electorate not heard such language before – a ‘fresh start?’
‘New Decade, New Approach’ needs further clarification if it is to stifle the criticism of its detractors. Accountability will be key to any new approach, in particular to the NI Executive’s activities. Although latent since the 2017 collapse, the Executive has connotations of scandal and chaos – not least because of the botched ‘Cash for Ash’ scheme, the report into which is awaiting release.
The provisions in this fresh document call for a more rigorous and stringent system by which civil servants can be subject to greater scrutiny in performing their functions. The precise mechanisms by which this will be guaranteed have yet to be announced, though these developments signal a move in the right direction. Such accountability for officials working in the shadows of Executive ministers will be fundamental for a new approach to governance so as not to repeat those well-versed mistakes of the past.
The issue over an official opposition to the Executive, or rather the lack of, is not promising for a new credible approach towards Northern Ireland devolutionary governance. Jim Wells has signalled his plans to assume his position as a ‘one-man band’ opposition.
Images of striking nurses throughout Northern Ireland’s hospitals have been dominant in the media within the last month. Now that Health Minister Robin Swann is in position, it will be incumbent upon him to devise initiatives to ensure nurses’ and medical workers’ pay parity, as well as the balancing of hospital waiting lists which exceed those of NHS regions around the UK.
Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon has a lot of work to do with regard to the outstanding deficit in the funding of NI Water which has been a key factor in the halting of regional building developments. Persistent criticism over the quality of the roads in Northern Ireland is expected to subside as the new agreement makes improvements in the road network a priority.
Additionally, education and controversy over school budgets and the ever-present threat of striking teachers are other problems to face. The proposed increase in policing numbers to 7,500 is a welcome development, since the financial and staffing resources of the police have steadily dwindled to unprecedented levels over the last decade. This is evermore concerning when faced with a spike in drug-related violent crime.
All such issues will be the litmus test for the Executive and how successful they will navigate the congested governmental machinery over its first hurdles.
The Prime Minister’s flying visit to Northern Ireland on Monday highlighted that key to the securing of this agreement was partnership of the UK and Irish Governments. Their role was arguably akin to parental arbiters cutting through the eternal squabbling and stalling of the local parties – two of which are most notable for such conduct.
Both Governments have also made commitments in the new agreement and questions surrounding the finite details of the final financial package they will bestow upon the Executive to bring a speedy resolution to these pressing, substantive issues of health, education and infrastructure.
These practical, everyday issues are of fundamental significance to the success of any devolved administration. Northern Ireland, however, is unique. Its operation requires an emphasis on the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the fundamental law and the basis upon which the region’s governance is founded. Northern Ireland’s constitutional pillars are rooted in the principles of consent and an agreed source of governance. It is these which ultimately underpin the functioning of the power-sharing Executive.
The post-1998 agreements, including the 2005 St. Andrew’s Agreement, have all individually reaffirmed the need for the Good Friday Agreement to undergo periodic review and supplementation. ‘New Decade, New Approach’ must be viewed within this prism of the Good Friday Agreement. Brexit was yet a further issue which threatened these pillars, but eventually the process succumbed to the current consent mechanism for the NI Assembly to determine if it wishes to retain the custom arrangements enshrined in the EU Withdrawal Agreement. The bill now navigating its way through Parliament.
No illusions should exist surrounding the fact that both Sinn Féin and the DUP continue have diametrically opposing ideologies, not least over the legacy of the Troubles. However, if those terms of the Good Friday Agreement are to be imagined within the context of this ‘new approach’ Executive, it will be crucial for the parties to find common and conciliatory ground. It will be no easy ride, but change needs a chance. Northern Ireland requires constant nurturing in both its constitutional, political and social structures. In the words of Boris Johnson at Stormont, the current deal did not signal that the hands of history were upon the political leaders – important as it is. History has been in excess in the country for too long, “the hands of the future” now rest on the shoulders of the region’s leaders.
The Executive is due to meet on Tuesday; its plan of action will be one which commentators, journalists and, most important of all – the people of Northern Ireland – will await with intrigue.
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