OPN 200116 NIRELAND-POLITICS-1579169844206
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson poses for photographs with Deputy first minister Michelle O'Neill of Sinn Fein, First Minister Arlene Foster of the DUP and Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Julian Smith, as the power sharing government prepares to sit for the first time in three years in Belfast, Northern Ireland January 13, 2020. Image Credit: Reuters

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was in Northern Ireland earlier this week to add his seal of approval to the deal that sees a power-sharing government returned to the province, ending a festering three-year stand-off that threatened the 1998 Good Friday agreement that brought peace there.

Peace? Yes, it is taking root after a conflict that lasted three decades, killed 3,600 people and injured 36,000 more. But both Irish republicans and nationalists — who want the British-ruled six counties that make Northern Ireland since December 1920 re-united with the 26 counties that form the Irish Republic to the south — and Northern Ireland loyalists and unionists — who want to keep as strong ties as possible with the rest of the United Kingdom — still remain sceptical of each other’s long-term intentions.

And that scepticism in part shows why the power-sharing administration that sits in Stormont just to the south of Belfast, was in a hiatus for the past 36 months.

New Approach Deal

Those that know such things say that the sign of a good agreement is that neither party is fully satisfied with the final outcome. If that’s the case, then the slick 50-page booklet entitled ‘New Decade — New Approach Deal’ worked out between the London and Dublin governments — both have a joint responsibility to oversee the power-sharing agreement under the terms of that Good Friday Accord — is the work of some slick sales and marketing gurus in both capitals.

The province’s demographics are changing: Yes, nationalists have simply had more children over the past three decades. But its politics is changing, too: Foster and her party were strong supporters of Brexit, the majority living in Northern Ireland were and are not

- Mick O'Reilly

Three-year deadline

Or maybe the fact that with the three-year deadline fast approaching and the threat of new assembly elections looming large was enough to move both Arlene Foster’s Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein to each give a little ground to justify their Members of the Legislative Assembly each collecting at least £48,000 (Dh228,900) a year for not calling each other names across the aisles at Stormont.

Johnson and his Conservatives no longer rely on the support of Forster’s Members of Parliament at Westminster. And with Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar calling a general election in the Irish Republic for February 8, he can at least tick off a working Northern Ireland Assembly on his report card.

Or maybe Forster sees the green, white and orange writing on the walls given that in December’s UK general election, more nationalist and republican MPs than loyalists — 10 to eight — were elected from the province for the first time in its history since that partition of the island nearly a century ago.

The province’s demographics are changing: Yes, nationalists have simply had more children over the past three decades. But its politics is changing, too: Foster and her party were strong supporters of Brexit, the majority living in Northern Ireland were and are not.

And Foster herself has been the central figure in a controversial rebate scheme that cost the little province some £300 for every man, woman and child breathing in the province’s air. Now she returns as the First Minister in Stormont, and will certainly face a lot more barracking from all sides across every aisle over how she handled the “cash-for-ash” scheme.

And money? While Johnson was in Belfast delivering his platitudes on the deal that returned Stormont, he was asked about cash to fund the province. Money that would pay nurses and doctors, hospitals and health care, for teachers and classrooms, education and learning.

His answer?

“What’s so great about today is, as I say, that Northern Ireland politicians have put aside differences, stepped up to the plate and shown leadership,” he responded in typical Boris-speak, that adding something about there would be “a certain amount of conversation about funding” — which a nurse or teacher can’t take to the bank to pay their mortgage.

The Republic of Ireland has a role, too, to play in funding. But Varadkar can’t answer that question right now as he’s off campaigning for re-election to lead Ireland’s Dail (parliament) again.

It’s not as if that glossy booklet is firm on details of funding either. The proposal says that it will be “providing additional funding for the Executive in 2020/21 to give the Executive time to place Northern Ireland’s finances on a sustainable footing, and address its priorities, such as delivering parity with England and Wales for nurses’ pay — bringing an end to the ongoing nurses’ pay dispute”.

That cash-for-ash scheme was the reason why Sinn Fein withdrew from Stormont three years ago and triggered elections across the province then. Those MLAs haven’s met so haven’t been able to hold Foster to account for the scheme. Instead, both sides were locked in an ideological — read stubborn — debate over language rights. Sinn Fein wanted the Irish language recognised on the same legal footing as English, while unionists wanted the unique status of Ulster-Scots put on an equal footing as well.

The new deal offers a new cultural framework with two separate language commissioners to “protect and enhance” the Irish language as well as the Ulster Scots language. As if that will pay nurses’ mortgages either.

— Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe.

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