By Chris Midgley
Last night Táiniste (taw-nish-ta) Simon Coveney and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Julian Smith announced “New Decade, New Approach” a 62-page draft agreement designed to restore power sharing in Northern Ireland.
It has taken three years and countless hours of negotiations to get here and yet, still, we are nowhere. As always with Northern Ireland there is nothing until there’s everything.
Mood music from the DUP bellwethers seems positive, with Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP – the DUP’s Westminster leader, saying on Friday morning’s Nolan Show (effectively a BBC radio version of Jeremy Kyle with less nuance) that this deal hands the Office of First Minister and deputy First Minister an effective veto over Irish language provisions.
Paragraph 5.12. reads:
“Best practice standards recommended by the Commissioner, and all subsequent changes to those standards, are to be put for approval to the First Minister and deputy First Minister.”
Donaldson contends that “for approval” amounts to the ability for the DUP, as long as they hold the post of First Minister or deputy First Minister, to block any recommendations from the Irish Language Commissioner. He failed to mention that any such action would be subject to legal challenge, which would likely succeed.
Irish language legislation has been a sticking point for the restoration of power sharing, indeed it is the only Sinn Fein “red line” which has survived to this point (they dropped abortion rights and same sex marriage rights long before they were legislated for by amendments to the NI Act). The provisions in the draft agreement are a long way from the stand alone Irish language act that has been demanded by Sinn Fein and Conradh na Gaeilge (CnaG), the body which represents the Irish-speaking community. This likely explains Sinn Fein’s literal radio silence so far today, even many of their vocal online supporters have been cagey in what they have said. Former Sinn Fein parliamentary candidate Chris Donnelly was not impressed by what was presented:
Another area addressed in New Decade, New Approach is the highly controversial Petition of Concern, a mechanism which gives 30 MLAs from either nationalist or unionist designation the ability to block legislation. It was originally envisaged, in 1998, to prevent legislation which would harm or disadvantage one community and not the other, however it has been used to block same sex marriage and abortion rights. The draft deal goes some way to bringing it back to its original purpose but is not the wholesale reform, or indeed scrapping, that many had wanted.
Neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein want to fight an election in the current climate, the crisis in Northern Ireland’s health service is at truly staggering proportions with nurses involved in strike action for weeks. Not to mention the lack of infrastructure investment and many other issues. Julian Smith has promised funding to fix these issues but made it abundantly clear that without a functioning Stormont Executive the money would not be forthcoming.
Sinn Fein also face the grim prospect of elections across the whole Island as Taoiseach (tee-shock) Leo Varadkar’s minority government struggles to cling to power, something that would usually be seen as “mission accomplished” but after recent electoral punishment beatings in both jurisdictions, they are right to be wary. And given the prominence of Simon Coveney through the talks process one wonders that if the parties agree, and if Stormont gets back up and running, might it be enough to save Leo Varadkar from Facing an election?
All of the above may be entirely moot as while DUP leader Arlene Foster has welcomed the deal, albeit with caveats, the Party’s ruling executive will meet on Friday night to decide if they should formally accept the deal – which is not necessarily a forgone conclusion. The same can be said for Sinn Fein’s Ard Chomhairle (ard corl-ya), the national ruling body who are likely to be even further from being onboard.
In addition if the Stormont speaker (DUP MLA Robin Newton), the man with the power to recall the Assembly, decides not to then a First Minister and deputy First Minister cannot be elected. Julian Smith and Simon Coveney are clear they want this done today (Friday), and legally they have until 11.59pm on Monday to do so.
As mentioned earlier, with Northern Ireland there is nothing until there’s everything.