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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

Now all they have got to do is make it work

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

Sinn Féin and the DUP at the weekend have reached an agreement; a deal to which they have both unequivocally signed up. It is a first, and they deserve two cheers for that, but it is only a start.

The third cheer has to be withheld for the time being. The deal, which follows a 154-day of stand-off, still requires a considerable amount of work before it is actually implemented.

For those keeping score, the DUP is ahead on points – it gave less ground than Sinn Féin. It's hard to understand why Gerry Adams held things up so long for this outcome that, most observers believe, was available without all this drama. Perhaps, as Naomi Long of Alliance put it, the Sinn Féin President needs a hobby.

For all his huffing and puffing, Adams secured no target date for devolution of justice, and Sinn Féin has no prospect of ever getting the ministry without DUP agreement. Even Peter Robinson's statement that he wants justice devolved without "undue delay" was not new. The only concession to republican sentiment is that the DUP have stopped demanding guarantees that the IRA Army Council never meets again.

Perhaps unionists have taken comfort from Sir Hugh Orde's dismissive assessment of the Army Council in a BBC News interview. "They are not a problem" the PSNI chief constable said. "The Provisional IRA Army Council causes me no difficulties whatsoever."

But the point of politics isn't to win these little spats. Sharing power in a devolved administration is about building a relationship between parties which enables them to govern effectively and to deal coherently with the British and Irish governments. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister need to be able to work together and present a united front on day to day issues.

Despite their differences, the partners in government have to muster some common purpose so that they don't waste months slugging it out over every decision. They need to be able to take decisions daily, not every four months. If they can't hang together on a common platform, then they will inevitably hang separately.

The recent standoff annoyed the public. It had begun to damage the DUP and Sinn Féin with voters who had recently switched to them from more moderate parties such as the Ulster Unionists and SDLP. With the economy in recession, there was widespread impatience with an assembly that costs nearly £38,000 a day to run but whose executive didn't meet because of a quarrel over an issue as recondite as the timing of devolution of policing and justice.

This was a dangerous moment for the two parties, but it will soon be forgotten if their recent difficulties turn out to have been a learning curve and they are able to govern more coherently from now on. If the laughs and smiles from Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson as they emerged from Downing Street is anything to go by, relations have improved. Their performance lacked the hilarity of the Chuckle Brothers' road show, but at least they looked businesslike.

They need to develop their relationship to handle the challenges they face. They have produced a choreography for devolution of policing and justice powers, but there is no timetable and it will require give and take between the big parties and regular input from the other players, notably the British government.

Shaun Woodward, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, caught the mood when he told the House of Commons "even if there are setbacks in the months to come, we remain resolved, and the Prime Minister remains resolved, to provide every help we can to ensure the completion of devolution."

Robinson and McGuinness have Gordon Brown's attention while they complete the process of devolution of justice. It may be the last chance they will have to put the squeeze on London for funds to make devolution run smoothly. Once policing and justice is handed over, Northern Ireland will be on its own, balancing its budget with no more claim to special treatment than Scotland and Wales.

Brown is in the mood to increase spending and cut taxes in an effort to kick start the economy. There is a good case for pushing some of that reflationary borrowing towards Northern Ireland, where it will be spent mainly on UK-produced goods and services.

Last week Brown made a good start by making available £500 million in deferred charges and subsidies. Water charges can be deferred for another year, even though extensive work is needed on the sewage and water system due to years of under investment by direct rule ministers.

Brown's cash will also help to make up the £100 million in back pay owed to 9,000 mainly female civil servants who were not given equal pay under direct rule.

These are legacy issues which it is right for London to look after. The proceeds will, in any case, be funnelled into increased consumer spending and the banking system at a crucial time. It was only after getting assurances on these points that Robinson and McGuinness unveiled the process document outlining the steps to devolution of justice.

The document contains another choke point at which money from London will be required. It comes immediately after a prospective justice minister has been publicly identified, a psychological moment at which the Assembly and Executive Review Committee will make their pitch to Brown and the treasury along with the justice minister elect. The document makes it clear that devolution will proceed only after these financial discussions with the treasury have been "concluded satisfactorily".

Without cash to oil the wheels, the process grinds to a halt and, with the end so clearly in sight, it's hard to believe the two parties will be refused. at least £130 million extra is needed for the policing budget over three years, some of it due to hearing loss claims by RUC officers who were not given ear protection on firing ranges in the 70s and 80s. Since 81.2% of police costs relate directly to staffing, there is no way that these expenses can be met from the existing budget without halting recruitment and creating redundancies. That would mean that efforts to raise the proportion of Catholics in the force through new recruitment, as required by the Good Friday Agreement, would be set back years.

These are all issues on which McGuinness and Robinson can hope to deliver and which will be popular. Working on such practical issues which directly affect people's lives can build their relationship and raise confidence in the political process.

After that they have to learn to act responsibly. Last month Sinn Féin staged a protest against a twenty five minute military parade through the centre of Belfast on a Sunday morning when the streets were deserted. Nobody who did not travel into town specially would have seen it but the cost of this political gesture was £300,000 onto the policing budget.

If Northern Ireland is to pay its own way, governing parties will have to justify the financial impact of their policies on other public services. Invoking the sacred right to protest will not pay the bill and it cannot be the final answer to criticism.

Similarly, the price of investigating the past, after the current round of Westminster funded public inquiries are finished, will have to be weighed up in terms of value for money.

We need to look at the vast machinery of government they have created to see if it is making good use of public money. Is it really necessary, for instance, for McGuinness and Robinson's office to have 424 staff, nearly as many as the 500 which work in the White House?

In the past, questions like this were answered with a slogan. Those days have gone for good.

November 24, 2008
________________ Sunday Times

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