Brokenshire hails progress of '˜Fresh Start'

Progress has been made one year on from a political deal that saved powersharing in Northern Ireland, but more work is needed, the Government has said.

Thursday, 17th November 2016, 12:00 am
Updated Thursday, 17th November 2016, 3:15 pm
James Brokenshire. Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire gave his assessment of the Fresh Start Agreement on the first anniversary of the accord between Stormont’s leaders and the British and Irish governments.

While the signatories hailed it as a new beginning for powersharing in the region, the deal faced heavy criticism for its failure to address victims’ issues.

Proposed mechanisms to support victims were outlined in a previous political settlement - the Stormont House Agreement of 2014 - but they have still not been established. They are stuck in the starting blocks due to a political wrangle linked to the potential non-disclosure of state papers on national security grounds.

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Stormont Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness had expressed hope of resolving the impasse before the first anniversary of the Fresh Start - but that proved elusive.

Mr Brokenshire said he was encouraged by the “significant progress made” since Fresh Start but emphasised there was “still work to be done”.

The deal stabilised what was then a rocking powersharing administration.

A series of political crises, including a murder linked to the IRA and a budgetary black hole running to hundreds of millions of pounds, had pushed the coalition Executive toward implosion.

The accord, forged after ten weeks of emergency talks, settled a long-running wrangle over implementing welfare reforms in the region and has established initiatives to rid the region of paramilitaries.

It also saw the UK Treasury commit a further £500 million to the Executive to spend on issues deemed “unique” to Northern Ireland, such as tackling the threat posed by dissident republicans and building better community relations through efforts to bring down the so-called “peace walls”.

A dispute over enacting legislation to enable Northern Ireland to set its own rate of corporation tax was resolved as well, with the rate now set to come down to the 12.5% levied across the border in the Irish Republic by April 2018.

The agreement included measures to address the issue of flags and parades and reform of the Stormont Assembly - including its size, the number of departments and the use of the controversial “petition of concern” vote blocking mechanism.

Mr Brokenshire said: “The Fresh Start Agreement concluded 10 weeks of talks at Stormont House and addressed issues that threatened devolution itself.

“It put the Executive’s finances on a more stable footing and resolved the deadlock over welfare reform.

“It put important new obligations on Northern Ireland’s elected representatives to work together on their shared objective of ridding society of all forms of paramilitary activity and groups.

“Much has been achieved. In the past year welfare reform legislation has passed through Westminster and Stormont and the first tranche of the available £0.5 billion funding for shared and integrated education projects has been released.

“A new Independent Reporting Commission on paramilitary groups will be in place before the end of the year.

“Political stability is vital in Northern Ireland. I know it is a great place to live, to work, to visit, to invest and do business in no small part thanks to the firm foundations of Fresh Start, and the Stormont House Agreement before it.

“They are a solid platform as we continue to build a Northern Ireland that works for everyone.”

The stalled victims package includes a new investigations unit, a truth recovery mechanism, an oral history archive and enhanced funding for Troubles-related inquests.

The national security dispute is primarily between the UK government and Sinn Fein, but Democratic Unionist First Minister Arlene Foster is refusing to sign off on the funding boost for legacy inquests until all the other issues are sorted.

Mr Brokenshire has said he wants to see the process of searching for a resolution moving to a “more public phase” when detailed proposals could be laid out.