Sam McBride: The deal that restored Stormont is falling apart – but no one seems to care

Sometimes what happens in politics defies conventional logic but operates according to its own impenetrable rules.

Saturday, 8th February 2020, 7:07 am
Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill have put on a united front – but they are not both fully signed up to the New Decade, New Approach deal

For almost three years, Northern Ireland was without a government.

The DUP and Sinn Féin were resolute in setting out the red lines – particularly around an Irish language act – which stopped them compromising to form an Executive.

Suddenly, on January 9 that all changed.

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The government published the New Decade, New Approach deal setting out a basis on which the DUP and Sinn Féin could resolve their dispute.

Within less than 48 hours the parties rushed back to work to restore the executive in an emergency Saturday sitting of the assembly.

Whatever one’s view of the deal, at that point it seemed relatively clear that the parties had accepted the compromise which that document represented and had, by entering the executive, signed up to it.

In fact, that immediately began to unravel.

The Ulster Unionist Party — which had been contemplating entering opposition, but instead chose to return to the executive table — announced that although it was going back into an executive founded on the basis of the deal, it did not agree with what all that deal said.

In justifying his party’s decision to re-enter government, UUP leader Steve Aiken said there were “elements of this deal that we remain totally opposed to — in particular the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement legacy provisions and the Irish language act”.

That immediately raised the question of what the Ulster Unionist minister, Robin Swann, will do when the Irish language legislation comes before the assembly.

Will he vote against it, in line with his party, or will he vote for it, in line with the executive of which he is part? Either creates problems — as does abstention.

But at that point it at least appeared that the DUP and Sinn Féin — the crucial parties without whom an executive cannot be formed — supported the deal.

Since then it has become increasingly clear that they don’t.

With each week that passes, those parties are distancing themselves from element after element of what is within the document which led to them re-entering government.

On the night when the deal document was published, Arlene Foster took less than an hour to issue a statement which made clear that she backed the agreement which would see her restored as first minister.

The DUP leader said at the time: “Our party officers, assembly and parliamentary representatives considered the paper on Thursday. On balance we believe there is a basis upon which the assembly and executive can re-established in a fair and balanced way.”

Sinn Féin waited until the following day before leader Mary Lou McDonald announced that the deal provided the basis on which to restore Stormont, arguing that “the changes which have been achieved in the negotiations over the last year, build on what was agreed in February 2018, and involve some very significant advances”.

But even in that statement, she went on to cherry-pick the deal, saying: “I reject in the strongest possible terms the British government commitments to the DUP on flags and other issues. These are not part of this agreement.”

At the Committee for The Executive Office this week, Michelle O’Neill said that “the two governments are the authors of the [deal]...the governments published the document whilst the  negotiations were ongoing”, a comment which tried to put distance between Sinn Féin and the document – even though the party will no doubt seek to take the credit for its popular measures, rather than saying that credit for those issues should go to “the two governments”.

In the assembly on Monday, Agriculture and Environment MInister Edwin Poots declined to give his firm support to the creation of an independent environmental protection agency – despite the deal being quite clear that this would happen

The same day, Economy Minister Diane Dodds was vague as to whether RHI would definitely be wound up, as the deal says, instead telling MLAs that it was a “complex matter” which required careful consideration.

This week it has become unavoidably plain that what on paper proclaims itself to be an agreement is in fact nothing which would meet the dictionary definition of that word.

On Monday, Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly asked Arlene Foster how she and Ms O’Neill planed to coordinate the implementation of New Decade, New Approach.

Mrs Foster replied: “As an executive, we are very mindful of the need for timely and effective implementation of the New Decade, New Approach agreement.

“The commitments in the agreement are a challenging and ambitious programme, requiring effective governance arrangements to ensure delivery.”

That answer implied that all the parties in the executive agreed to what was in the document, yet that is manifestly not the case.

How can they agree to implement policies which they have either not yet decided – as in closing RHI – or with which they firmly disagree?

All of this matters for what ought to be an obvious reason – yet no one in Stormont seems alarmed by its logic. If the parties within the executive are not bound to accept all of the deal document – rather than merely the parts which they like – why should their rivals take the pain of supporting the elements which are ideologically or electorally difficult for them?

If parties are free to pick and choose from the document, saying that it is the governments’ document rather than one they accepted, will the DUP actually feel compelled to vote for Irish language legislation?

Will any of the parties be bound to support the Bengoa health reforms when they lead to smaller hospitals being downgraded or services moved?

Will any of the parties be bound to support the unpopular closure or amalgamation of smaller schools?

If the document is not sacrosanct as a set menu but is in fact an à la carte list from which the less appetising dishes can be declined, then none of the issues which we were told prevented Stormont returning for three years have actually been resolved.

The apparent relaxation of all the parties about the fact that the key players are not fully signed up to the deal perhaps points to the real truth as to what has gone on.

The DUP and Sinn Féin, losing votes and with nowhere else to go, needed some fig leaf to cover the fact that both were abandoning key elements of what they have been telling their voters for years

With that fig leaf having been carefully positioned, they were able to march back into Stormont less naked than would otherwise have been the case.

Now that leaf is starting to wilt, but it has done its job in providing protection from embarrassment in the critical period where the u-turns were made.

The difficulty is that without a resolution to these issues, we may merely be putting off the evil day when they have to be faced.