Currently, the Stormont Talks are at a crossroads. Parties have set out their initial positions, but unfortunately, so far there has been absence of common ground on the big issues. To put it simply, Nationalists will not consider any new devolved arrangements for Northern Ireland without guarantees of North-South arrangements with meaningful powers. On the other hand, Unionists desire devolution but not North-South bodies. This stalemate can only be broken by realistic compromise, but no-one wants to make the first move.
This is deeply frustrating to those of us who are taking the process seriously, and who want to make progress. Alliance can accept and see a strong justification for both a new devolved Assembly for Northern Ireland, and meaningful North-South bodies.
There is a temptation to move slowly in an effort to build momentum. But this is little more than putting off the day when the necessary compromises have to be made. Parties need to demonstrate leadership; they need to give hope; they need to take risks. Any party that is not prepared to indicate areas of possible compromise, and which is not prepared to move from entrenched positions, could be accused of not being serious about making the process work.
The Talks operate under a formula of “Nothing is agreed, until everything is agreed”. This provides a safety net for participants enabling them to make progressive compromises. Nothing can be implemented until the full package is agreed. Therefore an indication of a possible compromise would serve as an example and a chance for someone else to reciprocate. It would demand a response. The process would begin to move; the logjam would be broken.
Some believe that North-South bodies are justified purely on a practical basis. Alliance is mature enough to recognise and appreciate their political context for others. What really matters is the substance. Accountability is the key. Provided that they are fully accountable to both a Northern Ireland Assembly and the Dail, there is really nothing to fear.
I firmly believe that the Irish Government could provide a strong boost to the process by being more open about alternative wordings for Articles 2 and 3. We are not asking them to hold a referendum prior to the outcome of the Talks: in current circumstances a ‘yes’ vote would be unlikely. However, if they were upfront with alternative wordings, a move by Unionists on cross-border bodies could be facilitated. This is one way for the process to start moving.
Equality and Acountability
North-South bodies must be based on equality and accountability. There appears to be a false assumption that such bodies will only provide a say in the affairs of the North for Southern politicians and civil servants. This is misleading and wrong. Northern Ireland’s representatives must have as much say in the affairs of the South. This loss of control for Southern bureaucrats may provide a deterrent that may help to limit the scope of any new institutions. There are as many areas in the South which could be brought into line with Northern Ireland as vice versa.
However, North-South co-operation can deliver concrete benefits. Just ask any businessman. Institutions may not be needed in every area, but where they are justified Alliance would prefer a series of bodies that would in practice have different powers. There may well be a need for some harmonisation in certain areas but not others.
Nationalists can take whatever comfort they wish from the creation of such bodies, especially if an overall co-ordinating body is established. But the reality is that accountability must be the democratic norm.
Early compromise is clearly needed in the Talks Process, not only so that the process can obviously reach a successful conclusion but that a serious debate can take place on the details. There is a danger that in all the euphoria that would surround any eventual compromise in the Talks process the subsequent detail of new arrangements would be neglected.
Alliance, as a voice of the anti-sectarian political centre, is much more concerned with the interests of the people of Northern Ireland than purely doctrinal interests. We accept that new institutions are going to be created, but are concerned with how they can be best shaped to reap the maximum benefits.
A new Northern Ireland Assembly is going to be the key institution. Its precise functions and powers will determine how local politicians can increase the prosperity of our people, make health and education services more responsive to local needs, and above all create the opportunity for the deep-rooted sectarianism in our society to be gradually reduced.
While a truly federal system throughout the United Kingdom would be ideal, in reality different parts will have different levels of power. Devolution in Scotland is clearly different from Wales. We in Northern Ireland have a unique chance to shape our own institutions. Alliance has begun this debate through a recent seminar that we hosted for significant players in business and unions, the public sector, the voluntary sector and academics.
Devolution will almost certainly involve economic development, health, education, transport, agriculture and environmental powers amongst others. Decisions can be taken that are much more responsive to the needs of local people, but there are going to be difficulties for politicians adjusting to the taking of difficult decisions based on scarce resources.
There is a further debate as to whether powers should be legislative or merely administrative. I believe the overwhelming demand across Northern Ireland is for legislative devolution. This allows laws in the above areas to better reflect our own realities.
This leads us to the question of tax-varying powers. Legislative devolution is in many respects an empty shell without some power over taxation. This of course does not mean that Northern Ireland politicians would try to fund everything from the local tax base. Equalisation must continue: it is the norm in most federal and decentralised countries. The term tax-varying suggests the right to modify the level of existing taxes, not to create new ones. Taxation powers would have substantial implications, in particular for economic development.
We have got to break the logjam soon, because there are many important details to be worked out on our new institutions. Nothing is going to be achieved in this process unless we are all prepared to compromise. No party is going to have everything their own way. If we are to have a deal, now is the time for leadership.