‘Way forward means dealing with reality’: Article by David Ford MLA

By David Ford MLA, Leader of the Alliance Party

The chances of the Assembly being up and running again in 2005 are now probably better than 60:40.

The Governments have now handed over their draft package of proposals to the parties. Sadly, it seems that any breakthrough will not now be negotiated by the parties. But perhaps a carefully nuanced package of reforms from the Governments will gain at least the grudging acceptance of a sufficient number of parties to allow the institutions to be restored.

If everything goes to plan, a complex choreography could unfold involving the supposed finals acts of decommissioning by Republicans, a verifiable end to all paramilitary activity which would be assessed by the Independent Monitoring Commission, some changes to the specific structures of the Agreement, and a restoration of devolved power-sharing.

There has been a running debate on whether or not, or by how much, the Agreement can be altered.

For some time, the Alliance Party has argued that reform is the only realistic pro-Agreement option. This position has now been publicly accepted by both the British and Irish Governments.

Keeping things just as there are is not an alternative. Certain parties need to be open and honest about that.

Those who maintain that the Agreement is perfect and utterly unchangeable are just as wrong as those who used to state that the Agreement is so flawed that it cannot provide a basis for a settlement.

There is not a straight choice between defending every dot and comma in the current text of the Agreement, and giving into the demands of the DUP.

It is equally clear that any new way forward must be based on and within the parameters of the fundamental principles of the Agreement. The fresh proposals from the Governments are absolutely consistent with these.

While the DUP’s list of flaws and shortcomings with the Agreement will be addressed, the solutions that the Governments are bringing forward are not based on the actual proposals of that party.

Instead, they reflect the outcome of an extensive period of negotiation and compromise proposals put forward by others, including the Alliance Party. Alliance has sought to play a constructive role by trying to create the space for others to move on to.

The DUP has already gone on record with its support for the fundamental principles of the Agreement. Potentially, they are on the brink of accepting the structures of the Agreement, with a few modifications. Only last year, they were totally opposed to the Agreement.

But people are right to be sceptical about the DUP’s commitment to power-sharing. Their record at sharing power is appalling.

Yet, the reality today is that the balance of power between the parties has placed the DUP and Sinn Fein in pole position within Unionism and Nationalism respectively. Many wish it had been different, but if we wish to see devolved government restored, we must work with what we have got.

With the DUP set to play a key role in any future government, then – given its past history – it makes sense to put in place even greater measures for accountability.

Therefore, the current opposition of the SDLP to stronger accountability measures is particularly illogical.

There are two reasons for considering changes to the Agreement’s structures.

The first is that of finding a sufficient consensus between the DUP and Sinn Fein to allow the restoration of the political institutions.

The second is making the changes necessary for the Agreement to work.

Virtually all of the attention has fallen onto the former. There will be much still to do in areas such as removing sectarian designations and reforming the voting system if the Assembly is to function effectively.

Even if there is a breakthrough in the weeks and months ahead, we do need to be realistic about its prospects. Devolution will be placed on a very fragile basis.

Some consideration does need to be given to the financial settlement for Northern Ireland. There is a major backlog of capital funding in our infrastructure. The last thing a new Executive needs to be doing is cutting services, and in the process creating unnecessary tensions between parties and undermining public support for devolution.

Attempts to raise additional funding through additional borrowing or through abuse of water charges are not simply not working. We need changes in the Barnett Formula and to give the Assembly the power to vary taxes.

There is a clear, mutually-reinforcing relationship between the divisions in society and the problems within the political system.

If the structures can be sorted out, there remains substantial work to be carried out in the field of community relations.

There is a need for a clear statement of a firm commitment to build a united community in any paper from the Governments.

Furthermore, it is crucial that the Northern Ireland Office progresses its work on ‘A Shared Future’ with some urgency.

David Ford is the Leader of the Alliance Party

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