While no side got everything they wanted in the Stormont House Fresh Start Agreement this week, there’s no doubt but that the awfulness of the alternative spurred political rivals to seal the deal.
The collapse of the powersharing political institutions, creating a political vacuum certain to be exploited by violent elements while unleashing unbridled Tory rule from London, was, thankfully, an option rejected by the DUP and Sinn Féin.
Instead, they produced an agreement which provides £500m in new money and sets aside almost £600 to mitigate against the worst excesses of the Tory assault on welfare payments and tax credits for working families.
And, of course, the Stormont institutions continue to be a bulwark against austerity by rejecting water charges, capping university fees, protecting free travel for the elderly and maintaining free prescription charges.
There is much therefore to build on but the real success of this Fresh Start will only come if it ushers in a thawing of relationships between the powerbrokers at Stormont amidst the realisation that there is more that unites us than divides us in this little corner of the world.
A harbinger of that cross-chamber co-operation came in the contributions to the Agreement debate in Stormont from Paula Bradley of the DUP and, at the opposite side of the aisle, Alex Maskey of Sinn Féin.
Said Paula Bradley: “I was a single parent very soon after having my children. I was also a working mother, and I worked extremely hard to pay a mortgage and keep a roof over our heads. I remember working with many people who, like me, were in receipt of child benefit. I used to envy those who told me that they put away their child benefit to pay for a holiday or spending money, for their children going to university or to buy them their first car. I could not wait to get my child benefit every month just to put money in the electric meter. That is what so many people on welfare benefits face every day. I am old enough to have been a parent when family credit came in. What a difference that made to my life. What a difference it made to my children’s lives. The difference in their birthdays, Christmases and any holidays that we had was because I was a working mother getting assistance through working tax credits.”
Said Alex Maskey: “Members have talked about the people in Scotland or Wales or England. There is nobody in Scotland or Wales or England who is getting access to this level of support, and I add that nobody in the Twenty-six Counties is getting it either. We have managed to get a pot of money of almost £600 million to be spread over four years. It is regrettable that we have to do that because that money will come out of our block grant. People have argued that that money would have been better spent on hospitals, schools, the arts or disadvantaged communities. Of course it would, but a lot of other measures in the overall agreement seek to address all those issues. We need to make businesses successful, give our young people, in particular, hope, and to support people, so we are making choices against the austerity programme and the dogmatic and ideologically driven austerity measures coming from the British Government in London. I just hope that, when we get beyond today, people out there see that at least the Assembly is starting to work again. I would rather they were hearing that with universal unanimity from all the parties. If that is not the case, so be it. But I know one thing: I accept the integrity of Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness when they both spoke yesterday and said that they were determined that this, indeed, will be a fresh start, and l look forward to seeing that happen.”
On Monday, I was privileged to join party leaders from across the House to express solidarity with the people of Paris after the horrific terrorist attacks in the City of Light.
On Thursday and Friday, I was joined by Alliance MLA and former Chair of the Assembly Business Trust, Chris Lyttle, Áine Brolly of CPL Recruitment, Kerstie Forysthe of sponsor Power NI and business coach Jackie Darcy as we visited companies across the city shortlisted for the Aisling Awards business accolade. Four firms are in the running for the prestigious award: Tyco, PwC, Stena Line and Hastings Hotels. All are world-class operators and reaching a final decision was incredibly tough but all will be unveiled at the 19th annual Aisling Awards in Titanic Belfast this Friday 27 November. The awards take place during the Friendship Four ice hockey tournament when teams from four Massachusetts colleges will compete in Belfast — the first time official league games have been played outside North America. The Aisling Awards will give us a chance to fete many of our American allies who are making the journey with their teams and cement further the sister city relationship between Belfast and Boston. See you there.