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‘Logjams slowing legislation at Stormont’

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The pace of legislation at Northern Ireland’s Assembly has faltered amid logjams over key peace process issues, it was claimed.

Only five acts were passed at the Stormont legislature last year, with the drive for agreement following a British and Irish governments-brokered summit at Hillsborough in 2010 slowing considerably, the review for the Community Relations Council revealed.

The failure to reach agreement on a Cohesion, Sharing and Integration Strategy to bring nationalists and unionists together proved disastrous as the loyalist marching season gave way to the Union flag dispute, both erupting into violence, the paper added.

“Politics had leached away from the chamber at Stormont and onto the streets,” it said.

Loyalists and republicans clashed with police at sectarian flashpoints like Ardoyne in North Belfast last summer following loyalist parades. December’s vote at Belfast City Hall to reduce the number of days the Union flag was flown from the building sparked sporadic riots across Northern Ireland, although not involving the numbers seen at Drumcree or historic Northern Ireland disputes. Protests damaged local businesses and received worldwide media attention.

The Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report by Dr Paul Nolan said: “As the flags dispute dragged on into January and February of 2013 the political mood became increasingly bleak.”

He added: “A combination of factors had combined to create the largest crisis the peace process had experienced in a decade.”

Northern Ireland’s Assembly was re-established in 2007 with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party comprising the largest parties in the power-sharing Executive.

Mr Nolan said the “duopoly” did not need to persuade the smaller parties before embarking on a course of action.

“MLAs are free to debate legislation that comes forward but with little chance of changing any bill that has joint Sinn Fein/DUP endorsement,” he said.

“Small wonder then that many choose to concentrate their efforts in the committees, where there is more chance their individual contributions will carry weight.”

The report highlighted legislative “logjams” and noted it is a decade since the A Shared Future blueprint for bringing nationalists and unionists together was published for consultation.

Outstanding issues include:

:: Agreeing a Bill of Rights.

:: Passing a Single Equality Act.

:: Divisions over abolishing academic selection of pupils at age 11.

:: Uncertainty over abolishing the Department for Employment and Learning.

:: Failure to honour a past commitment to introduce an Irish Language Act.

The report said: “The combined effect of these disagreements has been to silt up the channels through which politics delivers to the electorate.

“The emphasis on cultural contestation (between nationalism and unionism) has been at the expense of delivery on social and economic issues.

“The provisions of the Good Friday Agreement have not prevented this relapse into the communal trenches.

“The architects of the Agreement attended to how power would be balanced within the Assembly, what they did not foresee was that the Executive would arrogate its authority and attempt to make progress through trade-offs behind closed doors.”

The report said despite the difficulties the killing of two people last year by dissident republicans had not succeeded in disrupting political consensus on the overall architecture of the peace accord.

It said changing demographics - a fifth of people consider themselves Northern Irish in a shift from traditional designations of British or Irish - meant dominance was not an option for either community.

In some ways Northern Ireland has become a more tolerant and peaceful society, with less residential segregation between Catholics and Protestants than a decade ago and falling levels of overall crime, including race hate, the review added.

Dr Nolan added: “In the long-term perspective the challenges thrown up over the past year are the sort of upsets that all peace processes must face.”

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