Ben Lowry: Much of the Stormont deal is OK for unionists but the context and over-arching framework of it is bad

Simon Coveney (left) and Julian Smith at Stormont.''"In these talks London sent out a clear message to Dublin that it was as much in charge of the talks process as was the sovereign government. Then Simon Coveney and Julian Smith, who had earlier criticised the DUP specifically but who never said a word against Sinn Fein for collapsing Stormont for three years, jointly delivered 'their' deal, and made clear that it must be backed" ''Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Simon Coveney (left) and Julian Smith at Stormont.''"In these talks London sent out a clear message to Dublin that it was as much in charge of the talks process as was the sovereign government. Then Simon Coveney and Julian Smith, who had earlier criticised the DUP specifically but who never said a word against Sinn Fein for collapsing Stormont for three years, jointly delivered 'their' deal, and made clear that it must be backed" ''Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
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This deal to return Stormont includes some benefits for unionism which were not there in the February 2018 near deal — the one that the DUP was unable to sell internally.

The military covenant, for example, will be implemented in full in Northern Ireland.

There is an attempt to halt the cultural threat to Britishness (although how an Ulster British identity cultural commissioner might work is far from obvious).

Arlene Foster, on page 9, has outlined the achievements she says the DUP has got on culture in this deal.

Without wishing to contradict that, I want to highlight problems with this deal, and its context.

The first is the apparent trashing of the strands that were key to David Trimble’s success in securing major unionist support for the Belfast Agreement in 1998.

Strand one matters pertain to the internal affairs of Northern Ireland, and are not a matter for the Irish government.

In these talks London sent out a clear message to Dublin that it was as much in charge of the talks process as was the sovereign government. Then Simon Coveney and Julian Smith jointly delivered ‘their’ deal, and made clear that it must be backed.

During the negotiations, Mr Coveney suggested that decisions on how to handle the talks were taken together by him and Mr Smith.

Just before the deadline he told the people of Northern Ireland “to urge their politicians to support the deal” he helped draw up.

This newspaper has been monitoring overreach by Irish officials for many months, things such as Leo Varadkar breaching etiquette by visiting Hillsborough Castle when not hosted by the secretary of state (then criticising the UK government from UK owned property). It is small overreach, but over time has large implications.

As if this was not bad enough, the Irish government has been a relentless advocate for nationalist demands (Simon Coveney said there had to be an Irish language act, Leo Varadkar said petition of concern must be reformed, and criticised an expert ruling by tribunal judges on the De Souza citizenship case).

For all the talk of Tory-DUP cosiness, there has never been any real UK support for unionist concerns.

This British weakness and neutrality in the face of partisan Irish overreach has now resulted in a proposed Stormont deal that confirms pay parity for nurses.

The merits of pay parity ought to be entirely a matter for Northern Ireland and Whitehall ministers. How or whether we reform the NHS in Northern Ireland (reform for which I have argued over many years) is no business of Dublin.

Last night I was talking to senior people in the DUP who said that the strands are in fact intact.

It didn’t seem that way in December, when Mr Smith agreed with Mr Coveney that the DUP was culpable for talks failure. Neither ever said a word against Sinn Fein for collapsing Stormont.

A second huge problem with this deal, and the context of it, is related to that Sinn Fein conduct: how the party was allowed first to collapse Stormont, then keep it down for three years.

They cited the RHI cash for ash scandal as initial justification for this. This newspaper has been at the helm the press coverage of that saga, led by Sam McBride, so our editorial view of the seriousness of RHI is beyond doubt, but it was no more a justification to collapse devolution than the 2015 paramilitary report that found ongoing IRA influence on Sinn Fein.

Unionists did not pull down Stormont then and would never have been forgiven if they did.

But, worse than the intolerable abuse of mandatory coalition of collapsing the institutions, this deal has granted Sinn Fein’s non negotiable demand of Irish language legislation, but has no process for ensuring that a party that does that again will suffer consequences.

There is provision for a cooling off period in such future circumstances but no penalty.

A third difficulty with the deal is the Irish language commissioner.

There are deep concerns among unionists about the way Gaelic is used by nationalist councils in areas where Protestants are in a minority. I was fiercely criticised online recently when I commented (see link below) on the fact that Newry, Mourne and Down council put Irish language above English at a leisure facility in Saintfield. I was mocked for calling the town unionist (as if it was my design that it votes 70% unionist).

Yet despite such potentially insensitive use of signs, despite the fact that the percentage of nationalists who speak Irish well is tiny, and despite lavish UK funding for Irish and for Irish schools, nationalism somehow managed to imply it was a victim over language provision — a self depiction that was barely challenged in the media, and has directly led to this commissioner.

A fourth major problem with the deal is the extraordinary commitment to implement the Stormont House Agreement legacy structures within 100 days.

This newspaper’s Legacy Scandal series in 2018 ran essays from terror victims, ex security forces, lawyers, politicians, academics, commentators, churchmen and others on how the handling of the legacy of the Troubles has turned against the UK state in favour of terrorists (see below a link to the essays).

No-one in the DUP or UK government ever responded to those fears or assuaged them.

An influential politician last night pointed out that this UK pledge to implement Stormont House depends on local agreement, and said there is little to worry about because the worst of the legacy proposals will not get agreement.

But it is hardly reassuring that Sinn Fein, a party once associated with the IRA, last night cited this commitment to implement Stormont House as a success of the deal.

An alarming aspect of legacy investigations is that the state (as at Ballymurphy, in an inquest that has become a massive public inquiry) is being judged to the civil legal standard, while terrorists are only being judged to the criminal standard of beyond all reasonable doubt (where it is very hard to find against).

And when state forces are also subject to criminal proceedings there is a paper trail that does not exist for terrorists.

This week we learned that yet another soldier, aged 18 at the time of a shooting, is heading to a criminal trial. Does anyone expect any IRA leader, who orchestrated decades of murder and mayhem, to be sent to trial?

Nothing in Stormont House will rectify this approach, so it is shocking that London has included it in the deal, as Sinn Fein and Dublin and others had long demanded.

Some unionists think that perhaps some examination of Republic of Ireland culpability during the Troubles might rectify the imbalance of investigations into the past.

It won’t. If London really is going to implement the mooted legacy plan, only a radical overhaul including major inquiries into terror and funding for civil actions against terrorists (to match various taxpayer funded civil legal cases against state forces) will even things.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

Link to legacy scandal series of essays

• Ben Lowry: Perhaps nationalists will admit that Irish signage in certain places hinders call for an act