A new deal, titled ‘New Decade, New Approach’ was unveiled last night (9th January) at Stormont by Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith, and the Tánaiste of the Republic of Ireland, Simon Coveney.
Weeks of talks between Smith, Coveney, and the main political parties in Northern Ireland have resulted in the accepting of a deal to restore devolution. This deal has ended the three-year-long stalemate in Stormont.
The date of the publication of this deal is notable. On 9th January 2017, then Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigned from his position in protest against the DUP’s involvement in the botched Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme. This triggered the collapse of the Stormont Assembly, a collapse that is now finally lifting.
Julian Smith described ‘New Decade, New Approach’ as a “fair and balanced” deal, while Simon Coveney urged that “there is no need, and no public patience, for more process and more discussions.”
The 62 pages of the document go into detail about a variety of aspects relating to the governance of Northern Ireland.
It explicitly makes clear that at the heart of this deal is ensuring that Northern Ireland never goes without a government for three years again. A main mechanism introduced for safeguarding this promise is the establishment of a Party Leaders’ Forum.
This forum will be attended by party leaders who will meet once a month to discuss issues which may cause future political tension and disagreements. It will act as a way to flag up issues before they become a bigger problem for governance.
Another big issue that this document deals with is that of Irish language rights. The introduction of an Irish Language Act (ILA) has become a point of tension in Northern Irish politics over recent years, with parties such as the DUP placing themselves firmly against its introduction.
Although this deal does not go so far as to introduce an ILA, it provides a compromise. A new Office for Identity and Cultural Expression will be introduced, with a Commissioner to monitor this role. The document urges this will be made law through a package of legislation.
A further sticking point in restoring devolution in Northern Ireland was a call for the reform of the Petition of Concern mechanism in Stormont. It had been argued that this mechanism was abused to block proposed legislation, for example to block the legalisation of gay marriage in 2015.
This proposed reform of the Petition of Concern states that for the mechanism to work, a petition can only be triggered by members from two or more parties, and a 14-day period of consideration will be in place for any valid petitions. It is hoped that such reform will help prevent this system being abused by large parties in the Assembly.
As the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ deal has been accepted by the main political parties in Northern Ireland, power-sharing government will return.
However, the parties will need to form an Executive by Monday 13th January to fully seal the deal.