Mike Burke with an analysis of the outcome of the recent Northern talks. Mike Burke has lectured in Politics and Public Administration in Canada for over 30 years.
The Stormont House Agreement, reached on 23 December, brings little holiday cheer.
Vicious Cycle of Cuts
The provisions of the Agreement surely end any thoughts that this latest round of talks was concerned with addressing some of the north’s problems or completing the Haass discussions. This Agreement is primarily if not exclusively about imposing the British Government’s neoliberal austerity agenda on the north, an agenda supported in the main by the unionist parties. Far from resolving or tempering social ills, it will create and extend social hardships.
The overriding importance of the austerity provisions of the Agreement is indicated in several ways. “Finance and Welfare” is the very first section of the Agreement and its objectives permeate all subsequent provisions. It is also the one area in which the most specific and detailed protocols are made. In these provisions and the financial annex, the northern parties agree to bring in a “balanced budget” and deliver “sustainable Executive finances.” Balanced budgets and fiscal sustainability are the battle cry of right-wing governments everywhere, and everywhere they lead to serious cutbacks in social spending.
The financial clauses of the Agreement make clear what is about to happen in the north. The Cameron’s Government’s agenda of welfare cuts is to be completed in the next two fiscal years, with only minor recognition of local needs. “Efficiency” is to be the primary criterion by which Stormont initiatives are judged, which will require reducing “administrative costs” and cutting “the civil service and wider public sector.” As experience in Ireland and elsewhere has shown, efficiency’s false promise of doing “more with less” is quickly transformed into the cruel reality of government delivering “less with less” to populations in need.
The Cameron Government offers what it calls “a comprehensive financial support package” of almost £2 billion “to help the Executive deliver across its priorities.” This figure of £2 billion is much less impressive than first appears. As the financial annex shows, only a third (£650m) of the total funding is new money. This additional cash is, in turn, spread out thinly to dedicated sectors: £150m over five years to deal with the past, and £500m of capital spending over 10 years for shared and integrated education.
The financial measures of the Agreement, then, are important in their own right. But they are also important for another reason: they become conditions to ensure that the northern parties actually do what the Cameron Government demands. London is less interested in “helping the Executive deliver across its priorities” than in ensuring that Stormont delivers the priorities established by the British Government.
Setting conditions actually began during the talks process, before any agreement was struck, when Britain’s economic statement of early December announced that the devolution of corporation tax would not come until the cross-party talks had made “satisfactory progress” on budgets and sustainable finances.
This condition, and others, became part of the Stormont House Agreement. Here are some of those London-imposed conditions. The entire financial package is dependent upon the Stormont Executive: (1) developing an implementation plan for the delivery of its commitments, including “efficiency measures,” that meets with Britain’s approval and (2) fully implementing welfare cuts by 2016-17. The devolution of corporation tax is dependent upon the Executive: (1) agreeing on a balanced budget for 2015-16, (2) clearly committing to put its finances “on a permanently sustainable footing” and (3) making progress on welfare cuts legislation. Even the £500m of new capital funding for education is subject to British approval of individual projects.
Just how dear welfare cuts are to Britain’s Tory Government (and its unionist supporters) is indicated by the “double lock” contained in these conditions: Stormont must move on welfare cuts before it receives both the money Cameron is offering and the power it wants to set corporation tax.
The Agreement reveals how completely subordinate the north remains, to the extent that Stormont can be accurately described as a ward of the British state. The Cameron Government holds virtually all the financial levers and employs them like a stern parent correcting a rambunctious child, or, in other language, like an imperious administrator disciplining a misbehaving colony.
The financial implications of this Agreement bode ill for the future of the north, especially for vulnerable groups with tenuous links to the labour market. The Agreement will set in motion a vicious cycle of cuts: the northern parties must implement social cuts before Britain will grant them the ability to reduce corporation tax; but reducing corporation tax will necessarily initiate a further round of social cuts in order to realize Britain’s demand that Stormont implement balanced, permanently sustainable budgets.
Haass Transformed, and Marginalized
It’s useful to compare the Stormont House Agreement to the Haass Proposals of December 2013, if only to realize that there has been no progress and some significant retreat on the Haass agenda in the past year. For the most part, that agenda was effectively sidelined by the Cameron Government’s austerity project.
Let’s first examine the terms of reference. The Haass-talks process was formally initiated in August 2013 to address the three issues of flags, parades and the past. To these three issues, the Stormont House discussions added two: finances/budgets/welfare reform and restructuring the devolved political institutions. At first glance, it appears irrational to add such a highly contentious item as welfare reform to a set of issues on which there is already profound disagreement. But there was definite political purpose to the expanded remit of the Stormont House talks. That purpose was to structure the outcome of the talks, should they succeed, or to assign blame, should they not.
The failure to reach agreement on the Haass Proposals one year ago was due to unionist intransigence on the issues of flags, a code of conduct for parades, and the definition of the term “victim.” Failure was also due to the lack of engagement by the British and Irish governments. In the Stormont House discussions, unionist intransigence certainly remained, as evidenced by the DUP boycott of the opening of the talks and the unionist parties’ proud announcement, in the middle of discussions, that they had refused to negotiate on the issue of parades. But the dynamics of the Stormont House talks were very different from those of the Haass process, especially in terms of the roles played by the unionist parties and Britain.
From the very beginning of the Stormont House process, it was clear that, unlike Haass, the talks would not break because of unionist opposition. The issues to which unionists most strenuously objected—the Haass triumvirate of flags, parades and the past—played only a minor role in these discussions. In contrast, the issue on which Sinn Fein was most opposed—welfare reform—took central place. Given Sinn Fein’s high profile campaign against welfare cuts in the north, the addition of the welfare reform issue to the Stormont House agenda, and the dominant position it occupied in the talks, was problematic for the party. The issue put disproportionate pressure on Sinn Fein either to make significant compromises on welfare reform to facilitate an agreement, or take the blame for the failure of the talks. By agreeing to the expanded agenda and allowing austerity to become the major bargaining issue, Sinn Fein was outmaneuvered by Britain and the unionist parties.
Another dynamic that was new to the Stormont House talks was Britain’s active if inconsistent engagement. Despite Cameron’s flippant departure from the talks and Villiers’s clumsy chairing, the British footprint is stamped all over the process and outcome of the talks, especially in the financial measures and conditions outlined above. None of this direction from the centre appeared in the Haass Proposals.
Let’s now examine the content of the Stormont House Agreement on the three Haass issues of flags, parades and the past. In some areas, the new Agreement is an abbreviated reiteration of the old Proposals, in others, a significant regression.
In both Haass and Stormont House, unionist refusal to agree on flags is handled by deferring the issue to a Commission, with roughly the same mandate, the same membership and a similar deadline to report.
On the past, the Agreement does not address the continual unionist attempt to change the definition of “victim” in order to align victim services with its one-sided reading of the causes of the conflict. In Haass, there was at least an acknowledgement of competing and contentious definitions and narratives.
The Agreement contains the panoply of new bodies and initiatives to address the past that were part of the Haass Proposals, including a Mental Trauma Service, a Historical Investigations Unit (HIU), an Independent Commission for Information Retrieval (ICIR), an Implementation and Reconciliation Group (IRG), an oral history archive and a historical timeline.
There are some notable differences though. In the Agreement, control over membership of the ICIR shifts from the Stormont Executive to the British and Irish Governments, who jointly appoint the chairperson and between them select three of the five members. This shift is in keeping with the general tenor of the Stormont House talks, in which the British Government especially played a more determinative part.
There is also an interesting difference in ICIR language between the two documents. In the Haass Proposals, the inadmissibility of ICIR information in court proceedings is called “limited immunity;” in the Stormont House Agreement, it becomes “no immunity.” This change in discourse no doubt reflects the sensitivities of some victims groups and partisan-political disagreements about the acceptability of the language of immunity. But does it also reflect a weakening of the protection of the information retrieval process?
In a recent posting to The Pensive Quill, Ed Moloney spoke about the experience of Boston College’s Belfast Project and pointed out the importance of maintaining the independence, especially from party control or influence, of the oral history archive specified in the Agreement. Both the oral history archive and the ICIR process more generally are also threatened by another problem that beset the Belfast Project. The Agreement’s contradictory language on the legal status of information retrieved through its provisions may well discourage people from coming forward. The promise of no disclosure and legal inadmissibility of information is considerably weakened by the insistence on no immunity from prosecution. After the Belfast Project, who is going to believe that information collected for research or truth recovery purposes will remain completely beyond the long reach of security agencies? Who is to say that the criminal or civil prosecution of a person providing information through the Agreement is actually based on evidence gathered “by other means?” These questions become even more important because the Agreement underlines the British Government’s special interest in security and its expectation that the northern Executive will protect PSNI budgets from significant reductions.
The membership of the IRG is also different in the Agreement, which prohibits publicly-elected representatives from serving and allocates party seats on a proportional basis. There is no mention of separate representation on the IRG for victims’ groups and other civil society organizations, as there was in the Haass proposals.
It is on the issue of parades, however, where we see the largest gap between Haass and Stormont House, reflecting the unionist parties’ refusal to negotiate on the matter. Gone are the many Haass provisions for the creation and operation of an Office for Parades and an Authority for Public Events Adjudication. Missing also are the detailed Haass principles for a code of conduct for parades. The Agreement replaces the specific recommendations of Haass with a vague reference that, in principle, powers over parades should be devolved to the northern Assembly. It also sets out an imprecise process to talk about how parades and a code of conduct might be addressed.
None of these comments is meant to suggest that the Haass Proposals are beyond reproach. They aren’t. There was lots of room to improve the Haass recommendations, which the Stormont House Agreement singularly failed to do.
The Agreement’s section on “Institutional Reform”—the other agenda item that was added to the Haass list—is in many ways a response to the DUP’s long-standing demand for political change. This demand was most recently voiced in Peter Robinson’s call for the convening of St Andrews 2 talks to address his concern that “present arrangements are no longer fit for purpose.” The Agreement’s concern with institutional reform is also a response to Ulster Unionist and SDLP musings about moving into opposition in the Assembly. Accordingly, this section makes provision for reductions in the number of Assembly members and Executive Departments. It also sketches out a process for creating an Official Opposition and smoothing Executive operations.
Overall, the Agreement leaves the impression that little time or care was devoted to the original Haass agenda, except to eliminate or otherwise diminish the elements to which unionists were most opposed. In Stormont House, the two new agenda items of finance/welfare reform and institutional change were unionist-friendly additions that virtually guaranteed the marginalization of the Haass agenda.
Sinn Fein’s Stormont House Failure
Even though a settlement was reached, it’s difficult to call the Stormont House talks a success, given the economic dislocation that will result from them and their inability to advance the Haass agenda.
In particular, these negotiations represent a profound failure for Sinn Fein. The Agreement’s cost-cutting, government-gutting ethos stands in stark contrast to Sinn Fein’s position going into the talks and the party’s rhetoric in the south, where it presents itself as guardian of the social safety net and protector of the public sector. And Stormont House is certainly not the “comprehensive agreement” that Sinn Fein has been continuously demanding. Like in the GFA, many of the most contentious issues are deferred to exceedingly vague processes or meaningless statements of intent.
I doubt that Sinn Fein leaders will experience much difficulty in selling the Agreement to its grassroots. For some time now, Sinn Fein has been consumed with questions of process. The one thing this Agreement does, in addition to guaranteeing the social pain accompanying its austerity measures, is keep the “peace process” alive. In the course of the next few years, we’ll see endless and no doubt inconclusive cross-party discussions about flags and identity, the past, institutional reform, the Irish language, a bill of rights and perhaps parades, should the unionists ever agree to meaningful dialogue on this issue that respects the rights of non-unionists. Perhaps we’ll even see more hothouse talks and interim “agreements.” For Sinn Fein, this never-ending story becomes simply “another phase of the struggle,” in which party members must close ranks behind their leadership to ensure the successful completion of this phase and the immediate start of the next. And so on . . .