So the DUP and Sinn Féin have managed to negotiate their way through the disaster scenarios to a deal. No walkouts, elections or joint authority after all. The agreement is now out for consultation, so there will be plenty of opportunity to pick over the details over the next few weeks. The outline is:
• The devolution of policing and justice powers to the NI Executive and Assembly by 12th April; a decision on Monday about who which party will take the Justice Minister post, subject to a vote in the Assembly;
• A ‘new and improved framework’ for decisions on parading, via an OFMDFM working group, to be completed in three weeks and working with a set of five key principles included in the document today; new legislation by the end of the year and the Parades Commission to continue to operate until it is passed;
• An all-party working group on the functioning of the NI Executive;
• An all-party working group to review all outstanding matter and how they can be progressed, which presumably includes the Irish language issue and community relations.
There is of course still great potential for it all to fall apart. The most obvious weakness remains around parading - three weeks for a working group to come up with a replacement for the Parades Commission is a big ask. Wider consultation may throw up issues which are not supported by some political parties or by elements of civil society. And working groups on the Executive and on outstanding issues may create divisions between parties in the Assembly which could affect the devolution vote on 9th March.
The new agreement has two interesting potential longer term implications for our local political dynamics. First, it’s bad news for the alleged ‘middle ground’ – SDLP, UUP and Alliance – who are seen by some as an oppositional group simply because they are not the DUP or Sinn Féin. Whatever about the brinkmanship, the two largest parties can now claim they’ve done the heavy lifting – they have negotiated difficult issues and achieved a result. I can see the election literature now. Alliance can make some political capital out of taking the Justice Ministry (if they do – the decision will be made on Monday). The SDLP and the UUP (with or without the Tories or the DUP) have been marginalised and will have to work hard to convince the electorate that they could have done better.
Second, the deal highlights the difference in territorial aspirations between unionists and nationalists. For unionists, and for the British Government, this is the end of the devolution process. At the press conference this morning, Gordon Brown referred to ‘closing the last chapter’ and Peter Robinson to ‘the completion of devolution’. Although further autonomy is possible within the UK, for example federalism, this is not on the unionist agenda.
Of course nationalists think differently and for them today is another step along the road to a united Ireland. Martin McGuinness made this clear in his contribution to the press conference, although I would have been worried by Brian Cowen’s comment on a ‘federal future’ for the people of these islands, perhaps indicating that he’s more than happy with an arms’ length relationship between the two Irish jurisdictions. We may hear a lot more nationalist rhetoric from Sinn Féin and the SDLP, as they try to convince their supporters that that a united Ireland is still a practical possibility as well as a legitimate aspiration. This won’t improve cohesion either inside or outside the Assembly. I’m pleased, and surprised, that devolution didn’t fall apart this week. But we are still stuck with the same sectarian parties playing to their separate electorates.
This post is also up on Irish Left Review.