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Over the last few days Northern Ireland has finally re-established their executive and restored devolved rule. This has been three years in the making, over many failed talks and bitter disagreement amongst the two major opposing parties, Sinn Fein and the DUP; both of whom finally conceded major compromises to make it happen. The document, ‘New decade, New approach,’ (NDNA) jointly fashioned by the Irish Tánaiste Simon Coveney and UK Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith sets out exactly how the Stormont executive will restore confidence in and reinvent the power-sharing arrangement.

NDNA is making huge strides to build upon the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement and address the concerns of both the Nationalists and Unionists that have kept Stormont locked in stalemate. Three things have been at the root of the deadlock between Sinn Fein and the DUP; the RHI Inquiry, a standalone Irish Language Act and the Petition of Concern itself. Each of these concerns have been independently addressed in the new agreement but what impact will these compromises have on the future of devolved government at Stormont?

To tackle the RHI scandal, the findings from the formal inquiry will be referred to a dedicated subcommittee which will advocate further reforms. New ethics regulations will be adopted and the RHI scheme will be retired in favour of another scheme. Firstly, this fails to release the findings themselves directly to the public, acting contrary to the mission of NDNA which stresses the need to restore public trust in Stormont. The findings report has been continually pushed back and even now has no firm deadline for release. Until the findings are released, the active part that Arlene Foster played in the scandal is continually glossed over, falling short of the justice that is needed to break down the entrenched corruption in Stormont. It will continue to sow cynicism amongst the public against Stormont until the scandal is brought to a close with transparency. The consolation prize to the public is a set of new ethics measures etched out to impede a similar scandal from arising again. However, without a robust and independent ethics commission these arrangements will not suffice to establish transparency and restore faith in Stormont.

Where we can perceive some progress in legitimizing Stormont is through the other concessions made between Sinn Fein and the DUP, particularly around the Irish Language Act. Ethnic Identity and language, tied to religion, are the social cleavages of Northern Ireland and massively influence voting patterns. The two languages and identities, Irish and Ulster-Scots, championed by Sinn Fein and the DUP respectively, have been on the forefront of political debate for years as part of the peace process. Sinn Fein has been trying to legislate strictly for a standalone Irish Language Act but only to be blocked by the DUP whom want Ulster-Scots recognised alongside Irish. Both parties held steadfast, causing the collapse of the Stormont executive in 2017.

Under NDNA both parties have come to the negotiating table to agree and accept both languages and identities as equals. It establishes an Irish and an Ulster-Scots Commissioner to “recognise, support, protect and enhance the development” of both languages. Steps will be taken for the official use of both languages in Stormont and for all official documents. Finally, the wall has been broken down in Stormont to move past the identity gridlock. This settlement is particularly significant because it marks a significant concession from Sinn Fein to accept Ulster-Scots as a co-equal identity alongside an island-wide Irish identity. It will serve to build bridges in the North as individuals feel more empowered to choose their own identity instead of being co-opted into political debate. This particular settlement has the ability to transform the face of Nationalist-Unionist relations on the ground in the North for the better.

The last major reform of Stormont is the Petition of Concern. Although initially a mechanism to safeguard minority interest, it has been used to steamroll any legislation considered anathema by Sinn Fein or the DUP. Significant restraint will be introduced and the ‘Veto’ will now need to have wider appeal than for just one party to be utilised. This rolling back of the Petition marks a move towards centrism. It means that consensus is necessary and the focus turns towards conversation instead of silence on whatever finds its way to the floor of Stormont. This reform restores the original intent of the Petition of Concern as envisaged by John Hume and those who drafted the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement.

Instituting ethics reforms, albeit limited, establishing language recognition and equality and reforming the Petition of Concern will no doubt allow the cogs to turn again in Northern Ireland. Only continued observation will prove if NDNA has gone far enough to keep devolved government steaming along for the long-term. From what can be seen, all of the steps have been taken to make sure three plus years of no government will not happen again. Here’s to hoping for a brighter future for Northern Ireland politics and a new vibrant democracy for those living in the North.

Robert Mirante is a Business Development and Data Officer at the London Irish Centre.