Month: February 2010

Snake Oil


All the ingredients were there: the crisis, the Prime Ministers, the big house, the Belfast Telegraph survey, the Parties doing all night sittings and the press pack.  At the end of all that we have the “Agreement at Hillsborough Castle” as it is officially described.  Not a deal.  Not “The Hillsborough Castle Agreement”.  Nothing definitive, just ‘agreement’ as part of a step process: same process as the “Agreement at St Andrews‘.

Many are of course delighted that there was any sort of agreement at all.  Especially Gordon Brown who would undoubtedly not wish one of New Labour’s great projects to crash just before a Westminster election, and probably David Cameron who will not inherit an immediate crisis should he become Prime Minister after the General Election.

The ‘Agreement at Hillsborough’ amounts to very little but a process that revolves around progress towards the devolution of Policing & Justice.  The only certainty is that there is a date assigned for the transfer of Policing and Justice to the Northern Ireland Assembly. That date appears to be conditional on a range of other points/matters/actions happening in some sort of sequence.

What are the chances of the agreement working out to a conclusion?  The Agreement is in five parts.

Section One provides a date for the devolution of Policing and Justice to the Northern Ireland Assembly.  There are a series of procedural steps which, so long as Gordon Brown does not call an election in the next few weeks should see the formal transfer of powers by 12 April.

Section Two is Parades. It is hard to see how Sinn Fein will ever accept that people lawfully and peacefully should not be subject to the sectarian harassment of unlawful violent protest, or a planned protest which lacks the discipline to behave in a civilised manner. The pursuit of cultural apartheid through designation of Protestant-free zones seems to underline republican demonisation of the Loyal Orders. Hard to see how Republicans will ever agree to a shared future when they are unable to countenance sharing a stretch of road a few times a year; not that many in the SDLP are more tolerant.

Section Three is a clever device to sideline the UUP and SDLP.  The problems with the functionality of the Executive lie in the institutional arrangements; the Executive seeks to enforce consensus among a disparate group of political parties which, leaving aside their constitutional pre-dispositions, have little in common. Section Three is not likely to amount to much more than the generation of a whinge list, but is disconnected to the issue of the devolution of Policing and Justice, and therefore is of little immediate consequence.

Section Four outlines no more than just an administrative catch-up process.  As with Section Three this is not timetabled and therefore may well be forgotten about unless there is a need to show something of progress – even if it is only seeing the Executive finally get round to doing what it ought to have already done, which if they were able to agree they would have done already.

Section Five is timetabled, and suggests that the Junior Ministers will be exceptionally busy. Not only are they putting a progress and action plan together for outstanding Executive business (Section Four), they will also be doing a report on outstanding issues from the St Andrews Agreement.  The most recent Policing and Justice ‘crisis’ has arisen from a very different determination what is meant by in paragraph 7 of the Agreement at St Andrews : “It is our view that implementation of the agreement published today should be sufficient to build the community confidence necessary for the Assembly to request the devolution of criminal justice and policing from the British Government by May 2008.” If there is failure to even agree on what was agreed then, what presently constitutes an ‘outstanding matter’ may well be a challenge in itself.

The fanfare for this ‘agreement’ is worthy of a snake oil salesmen’s convention. Agreed, tentatively and with provisos, is a date for the devolution of Policing and Justice.  That is it. The DUP has allowed the issue of ‘community confidence’ to focus on the parades issue, but that is just one area where confidence in the Stormont administration is weak.  Lack of accountability, the chimera of collective responsibility and absent democratic counterbalance of effective opposition are fundamentals that appear not to have been discussed at Hillsborough, yet are underlying factors in the lack of unionist confidence in Stormont generally.

Sectioning parades hides the real fear of devolution of Policing and Justice with respect to that issue: Section One (9), that a future Minister could take a decision by request or otherwise, to step in to ban a parade without recourse to the Executive. Given the history of the generation of parades contention by Sinn Fein, the pattern is set.  With the Justice Minister open to d’Hondt in the next Assembly the ground is set for a heightening of conflict centred on parades, whoever gets the Justice Ministry.

The quasi-judicial powers of the Justice Minister is the ticking time-bomb on parades. More immediately, the parades fuse is lit on this ‘Agreement’. Ashdown wasn’t even close to a credible alternative to the Parades Commission. Serious questions on the process within that ‘interim’ report remain unanswered; yet that ‘report’ is noted as a start point on which to build.

The Hillsborough talks have demonstrated that the DUP is as useless as the UUP at negotiation: the lead-up to Hillsborough was promising, but the end result is a big disappointment.  The DUP blinked, and Sinn Fein is now piling on the pressure on parades, upping the ante and making resolution on parades nigh on impossible: the most recent outburst from Martin McGuinness is an example.  More generally, the remarks by Pat Doherty point to a longer term process of attrition; building on the undermining of cultural identity and political confidence within the broad unionist electorate.

Sinn Fein has its date for devolution of Policing and Justice.  Once in process, how many believe there will be much concluded of Sections Two, Three, Four and Five without another ‘crisis’.

By any measure, unionist community confidence in the ‘Agreement at Hillsborough’ is at best low.  The text of the published document was printed in newspapers and is readily available online as a document and subject of comment. The success of the snake oil salesman is in the ignorance and credulity of the buying public.  To presume that somehow the lack of confidence can be solved by wider publication is erroneous.

Parades may be an obvious point of contention in this ‘Agreement’, but fundamentally the real issue is a lack of confidence in the institutions themselves into which Policing and Justice is to be devolved.  Broadly speaking, the unionist community has little desire for more snake oil from the huckster’s store, no matter how many times the bottle is rebranded ‘new & improved’.