Sam McBride: There is pain in this document for both DUP and Sinn Fein – Belfast Newsletter

Stormont is set to return but in the rush to push the deal through there are many unanswered questions

Around 10pm on Thursday, the NIO published on its website more than 30,000 words of the deal itself and supporting legislation, the latter involving particularcomplexity because much of it amends existing legislation.

As the documentswere being made public, Secretary of State Julian Smith was urging the parties to meet within hours to ratify the agreement and restore the Executive.

In contrast to his hapless predecessor Karen Bradley, Mr Smith has demonstrated enormous political skill, and some ruthlessness, in securing the DUPs support for this agreement.

His attempt to rush through the deal before most of the public or even party members knew what it entailed was almost certainly an attempt to prevent the DUP getting cold feet and reneging on it,as happened in February 2018 when Arlene Foster could not bring her party with her.

But although his intent was to help Mrs Foster and Michelle ONeill, the governments might have inadvertently made it harder for them to sell this agreement.

Yesterday several unionist critics of the deal, including the Orange Order, cited the attempt to rush it through as a reason to be wary.

But despite some of those within both unionism and republicanism claiming that it is entirely one-sided, anyone who has read the62 pages of the agreement itself will realise that there is pain in this document for both the DUP and Sinn Fin.

Republicans walked out of government vowing not to return to govern with Mrs Foster as first minister until she cleared her name in relation to the RHI scandal and then subsequently said it had a red line of securing a stand alone Irish language act. It has abandoned both red lines.

This is a limp version of an Irish language act, dressed up with a similarly limp fig leaf of an Ulster Scots act which even most DUP members dont seem to care about.

Nevertheless, it is an Irish language act in all but name, and is being delivered by Mrs Foster who said unambiguously (and without any of her later caveats about whether it was stand alone) when she last stood for election in 2017: I will never accede to an Irish language act.

The public could now be forgiven for wondering what the last three years of stalemate have been about.

Mrs Foster has abandoned her opposition to Irish language legislation while Sinn Fin has realised that its one red line was not a red line after all.

In truth, both parties became worn down by the reality of their inability to present any credible alternative to restoring Stormont.

Sinn Fin once suggested a form of de facto joint authority but then abandoned it when the Irish government pointed out that it would breach the Belfast Agreement and the DUP came to see that direct rule would deliver an agenda contrary to much of its worldview.

Without an alternative, more voters appeared to view it as morally indefensible to refuse to govern when the health crisis was endangering lives.

Yesterdays deal is sweeping in its reach everything from promising to fund IVF treatment to new greenways, a fresh attempt at a bill of rights and a whole fleet of new commissioners.

That detail can obscure a more basic reality within this document. Here a Stormont which has claimed to be cash-strapped is merrily spending money on a host of programmes, commissioners and funds which are overwhelmingly being created for political purposes.

None of the politically sensitive elements of this deal are publicly costed. For instance, the budget for the Irish language commissioner will be crucial to the scale of that office.

Has it been privately agreed, or will that be a future argument? How many staff will be employed in the central translation hub? Which existing Stormont programmes will be cut to pay for this new expenditure or where else will the money be found?Without scrutiny, we cannot know the answers to those or scores of other questions arising from these documents.

Some of what is proposed is eminently sensible and a direct response to the appalling behaviour of some individuals within the DUP, Sinn Fin and the civil service during the last bout of devolution.

The fact that a requirement on civil servants to minute meetings and for ministers to publish their declarations of gifts has to be included in an agreement in 2020 is an illustration of how secretive and democratically backward the previous Stormont was.

But there are also elements of the deal which are self-contradictory to the point of being nonsensical.

The agreement talks about greater transparency, giving people clear information on what will be delivered with taxpayers and ratepayers money, and, where the Executive is seeking to raise additional revenue, it must be made clear what service improvements and investments will be funded with the additional money.

Yet that principle has not been enforced within the deal itself. No justification is given for the requirement for expenditure on an Ulster Scots Commissioner or for Ulster Scots to be promoted in schools or for a host of other decisions.We are simply told that they are happening and that is that; there is no need for any explanation or even the cost.

It goes on to say that in a divided society there is an extra financial burden in duplication of public services and therefore they agree thatin developing new policies and, over time, in reviewing existing ones, it will be important that the Executive takes steps to eliminate all such costs.

Yet the deal itself contains obvious duplication the expensive fig leaf of an Ulster Scots Commissioner being inserted in the deal for purely political reasons and therefore adding to the burden on taxpayers rather than reducing it.

Both Mrs Foster and Ms ONeill are greatly diminished leaders. Grudgingly shackled together in a marriage of necessity, they do not go into this new Stormont with the prospect of the sort of honeymoon which Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness enjoyed in 2007.

Mrs Foster faces the particular challenge of having failed to prepare many of her supporters for the looming acceptance of a de facto Irish language act.

As recently as last Sunday, Gregory Campbell delivered a seemingly tough message with the headline Pressure Wont Prove Productive. Although reading between the lines it seemed that Mr Campbell who once lampooned Irish with the phrase curry my yoghurt was preparing for a climb-down, that message was hidden amidst chest-beating rhetoric.

While the DUP has blunted elements of the Irish legislation, it was clear from Mary Lou McDonalds comments last night that her party does not accept this as a final settlement on the Irish language.

The DUP wanted a mechanism to prevent republicans from again pulling down Stormont, but failed to secure it.

That will unnerve some of their supporters who fear that the last three years could be repeated again if the two parties again fall out spectacularly or if Sinn Fin believes it is strategically beneficial to do so.

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Sam McBride: There is pain in this document for both DUP and Sinn Fein - Belfast Newsletter

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