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22 January 2015

Stormont House Agreement

Stormont House Agreement

The Stormont House Agreement is the result of the latest political negotiations between the Northern Ireland Executive Parties and the British and Irish governments. The fact an agreement was reached at all on 23 December after ten plus weeks of turbulent talks surprised many. Though it should be noted that some parties still have to formally ratify the Agreement within their own party structures. Nevertheless, it was a bold and welcome attempt to tackle a whole range of current and longstanding issues of contention from the Budget and welfare reform to the legacy of The Troubles, flags, parading and Assembly restructuring.

In terms of finance and welfare, there is an additional £2billion package from the British Government from 2014-2020 to support a society living in the legacy of the division caused by the troubles. Part of this cost will be met through reducing the size of the civil service through voluntary redundancies and restructuring with the intention of creating increased efficiency. A programme of welfare reform will begin in the financial year 2015-16 and is to be completed by 2016-17. The fiscal powers to set corporation tax are also to be devolved and active by 2017. It is worth noting at this stage that that the talks were very focused on money. This is no surprise given the times we live in and the realities of a reduced budget and stretched block grant. There is the underlying assumption however that a strong economy will lead to a flourishing society. Whilst we recognise the importance of fiscal stability, all the money in the world cannot solve Northern Ireland's legacy issues if the political will is not there. We await further details of welfare reform and any flexibilities that have been agreed or accommodated within the negotiations. We pray the local politics of right and left, unionist and nationalist and other will find some fair and equitable way to reform the system while protecting those very most at need in our society.

The agreement establishes a commission to deal with the contentious issues of flags, identity, culture and tradition to be in place by June 2015. It is to report within eighteen months and is made up of fifteen members with seven nominees appointed by the leaders of the parties in the Executive and the other eight from outside of government. More detail is needed and quickly. The reality is however that, with a live public consultation on the flying of the union flag at Stormont, electioneering and a hotly contested seat in East Belfast, agreement on flags may not be likely this side of the election.

Parading powers are to be devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly –there is to be a full public consultation on any agreed legislation in the spirit of 'openness, transparency, fairness and proportionality'. It is encouraging to see some of the language we have used previously in response to the Haas Talks and the Together Building a United Community (TBUC) document, such as moving beyond 'rights' towards 'responsibility for others' beginning to feature more prominently from all sides in the parades debate.

There is to be an oral history archive. This allows people to voluntarily tell their stories and another element seeks to set out a factual/statistical time line of the troubles within twelve months. This is a concept we put forward in the Haass process –separating out some of the objective facts from the varying subjective narratives. Both have an important role.

An Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) is to be set up. Its role is to investigate outstanding Troubles related deaths. It will have oversight from the NI policing board and where necessary will have access to information from the UK and Irish Governments, with a deadline to be completed within five years. We welcome this ambitious plan and hope it is met with the resources to meet such a task. The agreement talks of full disclosure from both UK and Irish Governments. The fall-out from any cover-ups or collusion still to emerge must be met by all sides with the political will to heal wounds, not cause more trauma for survivors. There also needs to be clarity around the hiring of former RUC and PSNI staff in the new HIU. The Historical Enquiries Team (HET) was criticised for employing many ex-police people. There needs to be clarity at an early stage so as to deal publicly with any issues such as this.

There is proposed access to better quality support services for victims and survivors eg the Mental Trauma Service, and further work on the pension for seriously injured victims of the troubles. This is welcome however specifically on the pension it is vital that a small number of contentious cases do not hold up the rest any longer. All of the survivors are getting older by the day and many are in urgent need of this pension to improve their health and wellbeing.

There is to be an Independent Commission on Information Retrieval (ICIR) 'to enable victims and survivors to seek and privately receive information about the troubles-related deaths of their next of kin'. However, the ICIR will not disclose information provided to it to the authorities and information provided will be inadmissible as evidence in any trial process. Is this truth at the expense of justice? Or a way for some relatives to seek to bring some closure to their grief by finding out information, in the knowledge that convictions are more and more unlikely?

There is a particularly welcome section (53) whereby the 'UK and Irish Governments will consider statements of acknowledgement and would expect others to do likewise.' This idea of acknowledging the past and parts played is vital to remorse, healing and reconciliation. We would like to see similar acknowledgements made by local political representatives, faith and community groups and non-state participants.

The agreement also explores the idea of institutional reform and ambitiously proposes measures for Northern Ireland having an opposition to be brought forward by March 2015. There is to be a reduction in the number of MLA from six to five in each constituency by 2021. There is also a mechanism for engagement between Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) and civil society as put forward in section 67 of the Agreement which we welcome as long as this is not a replacement for day to day civic engagement which works exceptionally well in such a small jurisdiction.

The tenor and spirit of the Agreement, particularly around the proposals on the past certainly has echoes of Eames/Bradley and Haass. The core Christian concepts of redemption, forgiveness, justice, repentance and hope are here but you just have to look a little deeper than first glance.

To conclude, we welcome the spirit of this Agreement –at its heart is an attempt to work together for reconciliation. There is, however, still a lot of detail required especially on issues like flags and parades. Whether you agree or not with how it proposes to deal with the past, it is promising to see some engagement and agreement on such an important and contentious issue. We pray that as the election approaches the parties will resist any temptation to dangerously distance themselves too much from a spirit of agreement on things so important to everyone in this place.