Stormont: with what shall we mend it?

Peter Robinson & Martin McGuinness meet Theresa Villiers & Eamon Gilmore.

Peter Robinson & Martin McGuinness meet Theresa Villiers & Eamon Gilmore.

By Steven McCaffery

EVERYONE is familiar with the children’s rhyme “There’s a hole in my bucket".

It features two characters going round in circles trying to figure out how to plug the hole in their water pail – eventually concluding that to get the job done they need a bucket that works.

First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness are currently negotiating a deal on policies to tackle sectarianism – with mixed reports on whether they can agree on enough measures to fill this yawning hole in their administration.

A deal will unlock a new multi-million pound support package for Stormont – but if the DUP and Sinn Féin don’t plug the `shared future’ hole in their bucket, won’t the money simply drain away?

Both Stormont leaders are reporting substantial progress in their talks, but in the same breath Mr McGuinness said the emerging deal will be unlikely to see progress on flags, parades, or dealing with the legacy of the Troubles.

It may well be that expectations are being deliberately lowered to tee-up a “breakthrough” moment at Stormont – it’s happened before.

But recent history also underlines why agreement on building a shared future is so vital to any hopes of making the most of valuable economic opportunities.

In December the decision of Belfast City Council to restrict the flying of the Union flag sparked months of widespread disruption, major violence, murder bids on police officers and intimidation of politicians.

The financial cost has been put at tens of millions, but government figures have also admitted the scenes did untold damage to Northern Ireland’s reputation as a venue for tourists or investors.

At the height of the crisis in January, the Secretary of State Theresa Villiers and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore came to Belfast for talks with Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness.

At that time the Stormont leaders had tried, but failed, to agree a joint statement with the Assembly’s main political parties in response to the flags crisis, with the disunity underlined by the refusal of Mr Robinson to meet the media alongside Mr McGuinness, for fear of their disagreement being laid bare before the cameras.

Following the latest Stormont Castle meeting with the British and Irish governments on Monday, the First Minister and deputy First Minister were at least able to join the traditional press conference.

And there were other signs of good news to come.

Eamon Gilmore seems hopeful of delivering a further €150 million (£127m) support package for the peace process from the European Union.

The British government has also said that if the Executive can deliver on at least some shared future initiatives, it can table a package to boost Northern Ireland business, including potential policy shifts around the creation of Enterprise Zones to help foster economic growth.

After Monday’s Stormont meeting, the First Minister and deputy First Minister spoke in optimistic tones of delivering a suite of announcements on the economic and shared future agendas.

Mr Robinson went to great lengths to stress that if new policies to tackle sectarianism are delivered, it will be because it’s the right thing to do for society, rather than as a result of pressure from London.

There were also a few intriguing loose threads – including Mr McGuinness’s pointed observation that Belfast would be wise to copy Derry’s recipe for reducing tensions over parades, by bringing business leaders, marchers and nationalist residents together for talks.

But there were also some signs of tension around the Stormont gathering.

The notion of `shared education’ is high on the agenda as politicians seek out policy tools to tackle division – though critics complain that forging closer links between Catholic and Protestant schools cannot be a substitute for a fully integrated education system.

At a youth event ahead of the Stormont meeting, Theresa Villiers repeatedly spoke of the potential of `shared education’, though Eamon Gilmore notably pointed out that he prefers integrated education, going so far as to explain twice that this was his personal view.

The British and Irish governments have bluntly demanded that Northern Ireland politicians make progress in building a shared future, after the years of protracted talks on the long-awaited `Cohesion, Sharing and Integration’ policy document.

Stormont sources reject claims that the looming arrival of the world leaders for the G8 summit in Co Fermanagh in June is putting pressure on politicians to do a deal.

It is clear, however, that we will see a series of announcements by our political leaders between now and the arrival of US President Barack Obama.

We should soon be able to gauge whether the negotiators in Stormont Castle can plug the hole in their bucket.