Making the deal work

10 January 2020 - by Gráinne Walsh

Three years to the day that the Executive collapsed, the UK and Irish Governments put a deal to the political parties which they hope will see a new Executive and Assembly established in coming days.

Whilst the parties are yet to commit to signing on the dotted line, it is clear that in order for a new Executive to work, a fundamental change in approach is required.

This is not dissimilar to the challenge that politicians faced in 1998 when the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement was signed, with years of violence and mistrust to overcome in favour of a power sharing Assembly.

Whilst the context is no longer one of violence, the challenge is familiar. After three years away, implementing new ways of working around old problems will bring back debate and scrutiny, cross-party working in committees, shared purpose in All Party Groups and surprising friendships across the chamber.

Some of the contents of the deal offer ways to address these challenges. The establishment of a Party Leaders Forum to meet monthly gives parties the opportunity to engage in a sustained way, to pre-empt the escalation of tensions by managing difficult issues sooner rather than later.

The strengthening of codes of conduct for Minister, Special Advisors and civil servants is an important inclusion in in response to RHI, with a job of work to be done to recover public confidence in the institutions and in politicians alike.

Improving accountability is a common theme throughout the document, with promises of an Assembly Committee to monitor the Programme for Government, the establishment of a Fiscal Council, and changes to how the Petition of Concern is used.

The creation of a Brexit sub-committee, chaired by the First and deputy First Ministers, will as a matter of urgency consider Brexit-related issues and initiate an assessment of the impact of Brexit on the institutions North/South and East/West.  This sub-committee will be scrutinised by an Assembly Committee.

These are positive commitments, but central to their success is developing a shared and common vision that focuses on the future. The contents of key policies such as the proposed anti-poverty strategy, an energy strategy, investment and economy strategies will be key to unlock the potential of the region. 

The commitment to deliver on the draft Programme for Government and beyond is rightly the focal point of the ambition, but this needs more than ink on the paper to deliver ambitious intergenerational change. Legislation is required to safeguard and enable the delivery of the Programme for Government, as whilst exciting and ambitious, it is messy and complicated, relying on a range of partners to deliver on outcomes that cut across different departments, sectors and critically, budgets.

We often hear that legislation is unnecessary for lots of things, and sometimes, that may be the case. But as a means of safeguarding and resourcing a collective vision for this region, it is the most effective tool we have to protect our shared interests.