What does the Stormont House Agreement say for the sector?

Public services
What does the Stormont House Agreement say for the sector?

The Stormont House Agreement – what does it mean for the community and voluntary sector?

Northern Ireland has a new addition to the lexicon of peace agreements – Hillsborough, Good Friday, Belfast and St Andrews are now joined by ‘Stormont House’. The fact there even is a Stormont House is a surprise to many, the fact that our local politicians left it to the last minute to pull a rabbit from the hat is less surprising.

So what does the agreement actually say? At only 14 pages – double spaced – the devil is certainly not in the detail.

Progress has obviously been made on welfare – a major sticking point for Sinn Fein - and we now have to wait to see what mitigations have been secured for our ‘special circumstances’, some shift on sanctions around disability benefit are expected alongside the already secured bedroom tax exemptions.

Major reform and restructuring of the public sector is also at the top of the document, reducing the size of the NICS has long been anticipated and it is hoped that many of the redundancies will come about through retirement as opposed to compulsory redundancy.

Corporation tax is mentioned in paragraph eight, with the hope that it will be legislated for before the election in May. As discussed previously in Scope whether this turns out to be the silver bullet is still to be decided. In addition the devolving of aggregates levy, stamp duty and landfill tax are also up for grabs. More here on the opportunities presented by these additional fiscal powers.

The vast government estate also looks set to be broken up with departments urged to consider how they can “realise the value of their capital assets”, or in other words how they can sell off property and buildings to raise money. Will this mean another property bubble, if the market is suddenly flooded with prime real estate and developers see a new chance to make some money buying up and sitting on land? Or will it be a case of selling off the family silver, only to rent it back again meaning the silver is gone for good but we still bear the cost of ‘owning’ it.

Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition

The next eight pages are taken up with the thorny issues of flags, identity, culture and tradition. Not surprisingly nothing is actually resolved; instead the parties have agreed to set up a Commission to address these issues and report back in 18 months. The main members of the Commission will be the parties themselves, but eight members will be drawn from outside government  giving the sector where so much work has been done to address these issues, a chance to – literally – we hope have a seat at the table.

Parades will be addressed by the Office of Legislative Council and OFMDFM, who will work within the EHRC framework to develop legislation on the “remaining key issues”. Given how far we have come from the long summers of Drumcree, and with Ardoyne seeming to be the final sticking point it would be hoped that work done to date to accommodate parading is not undone by any new legislation.

The Past

Over five pages are reserved for the issue of “the past”. Firstly there will be an oral history archive, and Scope has already written about that here. Again it is hoped there will be no reinventing of the wheel or, in these times of reduced finances, duplication of existing facilities and work that has been ongoing for some time in the community sector and elsewhere.

Point 25 is interesting, a 12 month research project to produce a factual historical timeline and statistical analysis of the troubles. People may wonder are there not already many accounts of the troubles out there and what will be the added insight of this one – a government approved version of what happened?

A Mental Trauma Service will also be established for victims and survivors; with a commitment to work with organisations and groups already working directly with this group of people. The Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health (Niamh) comments; "Niamh broadly welcomes the Stormont House Agreement recommendation “for a comprehensive Mental Trauma Service”. It is important that  all those affected by and at risk of mental ill health – irrespective of the cause - have access to high quality services to support recovery and build resilience."

The HET will be replaced by a HIU (Historical Investigations Unit) that will take forward outstanding cases and will also be able to review cases already completed. Families can also apply to have cases considered if there is new evidence.

This will be supported by a new body (despite earlier commitments to reduce the size of the public sector), an independent commission on information retrieval – similar to the independent commission on the location of victims remains. It’s time bound for only five years and will seek and receive information about the troubles.

On top of that there will be an implementation and reconciliation group to “oversee themes, archives and information recovery”.  It will promote reconciliation and will have an independent chair of international standing nominated by the First and deputy First Minister. The political parties will form the rest of the group.

In relation to these issues Patrick Corrigan from Amnesty said: "As well as investigating outstanding cases from the conflict period and engaging in information recovery to the benefit of victims' families, a new process to deal with the past must also be able to examine overall patterns of abuses, practices and policies of both state and non-state actors and collusion between them.

"Such impartial examination could benefit this and future generations in understanding the wrongs done on all sides.

"The Implementation and Reconciliation Group proposed in the Agreement is supposed to be the mechanism which will deliver such historic examination. Yet, with a body filled with political appointees and working from an evidence-base somewhat reliant on voluntary disclosure, it is not at all clear if it will be able to fulfill its purpose.

"The failure of the UK and Irish governments to commit in the Agreement to public inquiries in cases such as that of Omagh and Pat Finucane already undermines confidence that full cooperation and disclosure will be forthcoming with those mechanisms which are charged with investigating and reporting on the past."

Also proposed it a pension for severely physically injured victims in Northern Ireland, WAVE has long campaigned around this issue: "WAVE welcomes the fact that a proposal for a pension for the severely disabled is included in the Stormont Agreement. There has been extensive work undertaken to date on a pension for those severely injured  by WAVE, the Commission for Victims and Survivors NI  and external consulting bodies. The proposal therefore for 'further work' will have to be seriously undertaken with a view to resolving the issue and not ducked by shelving it while the seriously injured continue to be denied what they need.

"WAVE are concerned that while other contentious issues e.g. Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition and Parading have time frames attached, the proposal for the pension does not. If this is taken to mean that the pension for the severely injured is not a particularly important issue this would be indefensible."

Institutional reform

As expected, the number of Assembly members will decrease to five per constituency (possibly, there’s a caveat: “or other such reduction as may be agreed”) by 2021 – so eleven years for MLA s to polish their CV and start looking for new horizons. That’s some redundancy notice period.

The used/abused Petition of Concern will be changed, but we don’t yet know how.

There is provision to set up an “official” opposition; but even if parties decide not to take part in the executive they can still keep their financial and research assistance and speaking rights.

More hastily, the number of departments will reduce by next year. DEL and DRD? DOE? Who knows, but the days of some departments are numbered. Hopefully this will not be a simple rebranding exercise, mixing two existing departments together and giving it a new name, but a real attempt to review the structure and function of departments and create a better way of working.

Interesting, the programme for government will now be decided before the d’Hondt process runs, how this will work in practice is still to be seen but it does mean that parties will need clear policies across the board not just for the departments they hope to take charge of.

Sneaking in on Page 12, is a major, but un-highlighted change, the maximum consultation period on policy will now be reduced to eight weeks.  This will have major implications for the sector and for policy development, and will reduce the potential to scrutinise and influence government plans.

Final Thoughts

The final two pages read like a hastily developed postscript, a bit like the final few items children scribble on their letter to Santa. A civic forum, or civic advisory panel; recognition for the Irish language; equality despite the lack of a Bill of Rights: re-focusing the North-South Ministerial Council; a commitment to implementing TBUC (Together: Building a United Community).

The final paragraphs are commitments to progress, review and monitor what they have committed to do in the Agreement.

Sector Impact

Late last year NICVA asked its members about many of the issues now covered by the agreement. There was consensus that the number of departments was currently too high, with 90% of respondents saying there should be eight departments or less. 61% wanted to abolish the mandatory coalition and 71% wanted an official opposition. So in these respects, progress has been made.

In terms of welfare reform and addressing the fiscal deficit, more detail is needed on what the mitigations for Northern Ireland will be and how the departmental spending plans published before Christmas will be affected by the additional financial package.


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