The Belfast Lord Mayor jokes that a “Fresh Start” had to be so named because they had run out of castles. It is, of course, essentially Stormont House for slow learners.
There is much that could be written about it. It is not all bad; some of it is bad; there are numerous sins of omission; and the biggest risk inherent within it is that it simply will not be fully implemented (like all the past deals agreed in castles). There is also very little in it which is either “fresh” or “a start”.
However, the main problem with it is that it is undemocratic. There are three examples of this.
Firstly, the process by which welfare policy was returned to the UK Government until the end of 2016 was at best democratically dubious. The purpose of “Legislative Consent” motions is for the UK Government to request passage of legislation which would ordinarily be devolved in order to keep regulations or laws aligned across the UK (it is commonly done with companies law, for example). It would not be totally outrageous for welfare to be “undevolved” if this were part of a UK-wide package, but for it to be done so that one party can labour under the pretence that it did not really pass a policy with which it disagrees is highly irregular.
It gets worse. Secondly, the “commitment” placed on “the Executive” to reduce Corporation Tax from April 2018 is not for two of the five parties to pass away from the Executive table, nor is it for the current Executive to pass anyway, because there is an election between now and then.
Thirdly, the commitment to commence the A5 in 2017 is even worse. It not only falls into the same category as the Corporation Tax “commitment”, but also presumes successful passage of planning within a certain timescale. Political parties have no right to presume a successful planning process at all, far less to put a timescale on it.
(To be specific here, the A6 Randalstown-Castledawson stretch is already through planning; the York Street Interchange is already at planning; but the A5 Derry-Strabane has not even started planning. It would be ludicrous not to fund the other first two even if the funding were available on the presumption that the latter may pass planning, particularly if it turns out not to! So it is not just undemocratic but utterly ludicrous to condemn a future Executive to such a daft policy.)
Local politicians have to come to terms with what is a policy or legislative decision or process, to go via the Assembly; and what is a structural issue, which may legitimately be subject to negotiation and a deal. Areas such as the past, the institutions themselves and fiscal devolution fall into the latter; but welfare policy, tax rates on devolved taxes and infrastructure are clearly devolved policy areas which do not.
I have said it before and will say it again: if the DUP and Sinn Féin don’t want to govern Northern Ireland, they should hand over to those who will.