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Parties can kiss peace bonus goodbye if they don't do deal

(Michael McKernan, Irish News)

At the time of writing the parties in the Hain assembly (that's not the Northern Ireland assembly that you and I elected to run from Spring 2003 through Spring 2007 but the special Assembly convened by the Secretary of State with a lifespan which apparently will expire on the stroke of the arbitrary date of midnight, November 24) were preparing to debate the conclusions and recommendations of the report emanating from the economic development sub-committee.

This is the same report which ran into a little local difficulty at Stormont last month.

The cross-party sub-committee, established to examine issues impacting on economic growth, produced a set of unanimous report and recommendations and passed it on to the main preparation for government committee the remit of which is to address the barriers to a restoration of devolution.

Before the main committee approved the work of its sub-group thereby opening the way for yesterday's (Monday) debate, it became clear that some Sinn Féin members of the preparation for government committee were not happy with the lack of detail particularly on the issue of a fabled 'peace dividend'.

This may have been the cause of some embarrassment for the SF members who ploughed their way through the work of the sub committee, including party spokesman for economic affairs, Mitchel McLaughlin. If it was good enough to come out of the sub-group surely all parties had signed off on the content?

Maybe democracy doesn't work like that. It would have been very interesting to see how this issue was resolved at the meeting of the main preparation for committee on August 29.

However we will not know as members took a decision which runs completely contrary to the principles of transparency.

Hansard for that day simply reads: "It was agreed that the committee's deliberations on the sub-group's report would not be included in Hansard. The committee then considered the report."

It should be noted that the members of this committee spent the majority of one session bemoaning the lack of interest in the media and among the public of their deliberations. To decide without explanation that the public – the electorate – should be allowed to follow some discussions but not others, is quite something!

The eternal search for the elusive peace dividend is something which has been occupying the minds of some political parties almost since the 1997 ceasefire and it was an issue which would come up time and again during the life of the first assembly.

But Gordon Brown (a man we will all probably get to know a bit better after next summer) was never very likely to sign off on a multi-billion cheque to reward the good politicians and people of Northern Ireland for agreeing to live together.

The results of the negotiations on a package to address some of the infrastructure deficit and legacy of under investment with which Northern Ireland has been bogged down did lead to an outcome which the Treasury and the Chancellor probably regards as its NI 'peace dividend'. The previous executive battled long and hard with No 11 Downing Street and finally emerged with what became known as the Reinvest and Reform Initiative (RRI) which made available for local use old army bases, established the Strategic Investment Board and made provision for increased public investment (spending) through the ability to raise more funds locally.

Following suspension of that assembly direct rule ministers have taken the outcomes of the RRI deliberations and used them to force through ludicrously unfair rate increases which bear no resemblance to the system in the UK or I believe little resemblance to that which politicians would have agreed had the assembly been in place.

And that was always the point of the package, that any increases in rates or local charges would be agreed by the NI executive and put before the NI assembly for a cross- party vote.

The absence of democracy is now hitting the people in the pocket, probably just how Peter Hain likes it. It is a pity now that the secretary of state and his colleagues appear to be using the reform programme to deliberately inflict financial pain in a bid to get the parties to agree a deal before a deadline seemingly picked from mid-air.

As Sinn Féin and the DUP trundled towards a 'comprehensive agreement' in 2004/5 there was again much speculation that they were arguing for a massive peace dividend and again this time around there is almost an assumption that a cash handout can be part of any November deal.

Maybe it will, although Gordon Brown and his team do not seem to me to be the generous sort, especially if it helps secure a deal which underwrites Tony Blair's legacy to some degree.

Perhaps the most which will emerge is some loosening of the rates reforms, along with an extended introduction to the introduction of water charges.

I think any peace dividend is unlikely to involve a massive, unqualified and unilateral 'bonus' to the NI subvention.

What will the two main parties argue for in such negotiations?

Given that so far they have been unable to agree a common policy in just about anything and that one report on economic matters which did get all-party approval at sub- committee stage hit the buffers when it went one step-up, confidence is not high.

One thing is for sure and that is that if November 24 becomes November 25 and there is no agreement to get back into government, then nothing concrete in terms of a peace dividend will be on the table or on the horizon.

September 13, 2006
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This article appeared first in the September 12, 2006 edition of the Irish News.


This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News



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