Comment: ‘draft agreement’ would have been a bad deal for unionism

The draft agreement has been published on Eamonn Mallie's website
The draft agreement has been published on Eamonn Mallie's website

The DUP disputes how close it came to accepting the leaked ‘draft agreement’, published on Eamonn Mallie’s website. Yet it would be alarming if the content of this document was even considered seriously by unionist negotiators.

Regularly since 2014, and on a number of occasions before that, Stormont has been paralysed by threats and demands from Sinn Fein. With that in mind, this ‘agreement’ offers only laughably flimsy suggestions to ‘ensure the sustainability of the institutions’ or guarantee they ‘can withstand political difficulties, challenges and disagreements’.

There’s plenty of waffle about ‘collectivity’ and ‘collegiality’, but the only meaningful proposal to stabilise the Assembly would give the parties extra time to form an Executive and extend the ‘cooling off’ period after the resignation of a first or deputy first minister.

Power-sharing has not operated for 13 months, yet the best plan to prevent it from collapsing again is to make the party provoking the next crisis wait 18 weeks before they get an emergency election!

These talks were all about Sinn Fein’s ‘red lines’, but, if unionist negotiators had any goals at all, surely they were aimed at removing incentives to crash devolution? Did the DUP have a clear idea of what it wanted to achieve from any agreement? There’s little evidence of a coherent strategy in the leaked document.

The bulk of the content is concerned, not with reforming malfunctioning institutions at Stormont, but rather a ‘package’ of three acts dealing with ‘languages and culture’. The section on an Irish (Respecting Languages and Diversity) Bill contains the most eye-popping proposals.

This text suggests that the parties discussed repealing the law ensuring that courts operate exclusively in the English language. The practical difficulties that this would introduce and the malign ways that it could be used to undermine the justice system can be easily imagined.

In addition, the mooted language package would have introduced not one, but two new commissioners, to deal, respectively, with Irish and Ulster-Scots. The Irish language commissioner, in particular, would have been granted sweeping powers to ‘introduce … best practice standards’ and police the provision of Gaelic throughout ‘all Executive departments, councils, public bodies and arms length bodies’.

This could have created the sort of scenario that unionists have always feared from Irish language legislation, with the purely practical business of delivering public services complicated by duties to promote a cultural aspiration. It would also have established an official body whose existence was dedicated to generating more demands for Gaelic.

In Northern Ireland, we know very well the unintended effects of creating commissioners and ombudsmen. Each of these posts requires offices and staff that cost money. They’re required to perform an ‘advocacy’ function, which means that they nearly always try to expand their remits and justify their own existence.

If we were serious about building a lean, prosperous society, the last thing we’d do is establish more commissioners and award them vaguely defined, but potentially extensive powers. Then again, tellingly, this document sets out various ‘priorities’ for Northern Ireland’s public sector, but has nothing to say about expanding the economy or creating a buoyant private sector.

If that weren’t bad enough, the ‘draft agreement’ revives the folly of a Bill of Rights. The Belfast Agreement set up the NIHRC and tasked it with determining whether there were rights ‘supplementary to those contained in the European Convention’ that might apply to Northern Ireland’s particular circumstances. It failed to define any such rights.

Twenty years later, this document suggests an ‘ad-hoc committee’ should do the same work all over again.

Some commentators, unionists included, have suggested that the supposed ‘draft agreement’ represents a good deal. That’s a very benign interpretation of a text which, had it been implemented, would surely have damaged unionism and changed Northern Ireland for the worse.

• Owen Polley is a writer and blogger