Another Northern Ireland Agreement is reached

This morning brings news that the DUP has decided to accept the terms of the agreement reached at Hillsborough over the last 10 days of negotiations with Sinn Fein and the other parties.   BBC News’s report is here, and the Irish Times‘s here.  The UK and Irish Prime Ministers are reportedly on their way to Belfast for a signing ceremony.

On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Shaun Woodward, UK Northern Ireland Secretary, was keen to emphasise that this was an agreement reached by the parties themselves – in contrast to the Belfast and St Andrews Agreements, which were intergovernmental agreements accepted by the parties.  In that sense, it’s a step forward to Northern Ireland being able to accept responsibility for its own politics.  But the other side is that this is a bilateral deal between DUP and Sinn Fein, and the other parties (certainly SDLP and UUP)  appear to be unaware of its contents.

No doubt the Northern Ireland Office will see the agreement as vindication of its strategy of forcing the extremes of Northern Ireland politics to come to an agreement, rather than leaving this to a supposed ‘moderate centre’ which can then be undermined by figures at the extremes.  It’s worth noting that the agreement has apparently been endorsed unanimously by the DUP’s 36 MLAs, and that on Thursday Sinn Fein announced that it had ended negotiations and believed that the basis for agreement had already been reached.  That indicates that the decisive act was within the DUP, rather than because of any further change of the deal so painstakingly negotiated.  The price of that, of course, may be further entrenching sectarian division within Northern Ireland’s politics and society.

It would be premature to celebrate the implications of this deal too much or too soon, but let’s assume for a moment for this enables devolution to be ‘completed’ with the transfer of justice and policing and parades, and that this agreement holds.  What then is the role of the Northern Ireland Office within UK Government?  It won’t have any programme responsibilities.  It will have only a fraction of the general co-ordination functions that the Scotland or Wales Offices have – they may remain at the political level, but not at the practical and administrative one, because Northern Ireland’s administration is so much more separate from UK departments than are devolved governments in Scotland or Wales.   The ongoing role of the UK Government in Northern Ireland will be limited and vestigial, and can’t justify the existence of a whole department of state, even a small one.

Where should that vestigial role be located?  Until 1972, Home Office had the responsibility for Northern Ireland, but that wouldn’t work now for many reasons, including the symbolism of that return to the past and the fact that the contemporary Home Office is a much narrower, implementation-oriented department focussed on policing and security.  Cabinet Office might be one option, the Ministry of Justice another, though there are problems with both.  To my mind, the success of devolution in Northern Ireland is a strong reason for UK Government to merge the three territorial departments into one, so it can focus on the major strategic issues that need attention and doesn’t waste resources or energy on maintaining an obsolete administrative structure for the sake of it.

(For an earlier discussion about the territorial Secretaries of State, see here.)

UPDATE: The full text of the agreement is now available here.  What’s striking reading it is its use of timetables for most key matters – parading as well as devolution and justice and policing.  For justice and policing, the key dates are a cross-community vote in the Assembly on 9 March and transfer of the relevant powers by 12 April.  For parading, there will be action in a working group appointed by the First and Deputy First Ministers during February, and transfer of functions and publication of a draft bill by late March or early April.  By mid-April, it will be crystal clear if the rapprochement that this agreement appears to herald is in fact working, or if something different is needed.

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