Three years to the day since the Stormont Assembly collapsed, the British and Irish governments have published a deal for the restoration of power in Northern Ireland. Late on Thursday night, the Northern Ireland Secretary, Julian Smith and the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney published a joint proposal urging all parties to sign up and reconvene at Stormont today. The publication is the culmination of three years’ of intense and often fraught negotiations. Both governments stressed that it is time for politicians in Northern Ireland to come together and represent their constituents. The proposal entitled ‘New Decade, New Approach’ consists of three parts. At the press conference, Simon Coveney outlined that the first section covers structural issues, while the second and third sections provide the financial package the British and Irish governments would make available to Northern Ireland. This morning, DUP sources sounded a positive note, while Sinn Fein is to meet today to discuss the proposal with its members.
Restoring the Stormont Assembly – the contentious issues
Over the last three years, two issues proved particularly insurmountable; the introduction of an Irish Language Act and the removal of the ‘petition of concern’, a mechanism by which one party can use a veto if it deems it necessary. The DUP, for instance, had vowed to use the petition of concern to block the introduction of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.
These two issues have been the stumbling block in the negotiations to restore devolution. According to the Belfast Telegraph, there will be no stand-alone Irish Language act while under the proposal, no single party can wield a veto in future.
To satisfy proponents of the Irish language and at the same time address the concerns of opponents, the proposal sets out the appointment of an Irish Language Commissioner as part of “new cultural framework that will include a new Office for Identity and Cultural Expression to promote cultural diversity and inclusion across all identities and culture.”
The proposal also tackles the second obstacle to restoration. According to a statement from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, the petition of concern will undergo a meaningful reform that will bring it closer to its original form as outlined in the Good Friday Agreement. It will be a “means of building consensus. It will not be a veto for any one party.”
Substantial financial package available if parties sign up
Urging the party’s to ‘get back to work’ Coveney and Smith said that a ‘major financial package would be made available to Northern Ireland. In fact, much of the joint proposal outlines the needs of the people of Northern Ireland. Investment in infrastructure and the health service, along with the transformation of public services are among the tasks facing the new executive. While the British government is to bolster the Northern Irish economy significantly, the Irish government is providing a three-year finance package for infrastructural projects.
Trade unions, PSNI, civic groups, and businesses welcome the proposal
Initial reaction to the proposal from among the community in Northern Ireland has been resoundingly positive. Nurses, teachers, businesses, and citizen groups have joint the two governments in pressing on the five parties to sign up to the proposal.
Last night, Julian Smith called on the parties to meet at Stormont Assembly as early as today. However, a spokesperson for the Speaker of the Assembly told the Belfast Telegraph he would only reconvene a sitting if the parties indicated their intention to endorse the deal.