A brave new world for all sides or more of the same?

This brief analysis piece on the Hillsborough agreement appeared in today’s The Scotsman.

“This might just be the day when the political processes in Northern Ireland came of age,” Martin McGuinness said during yesterday’s press conference at Hillsborough Castle.

Only time will tell if the deputy first minister’s optimism was well-founded, but there are grounds for believing the agreement reached between Sinn Fein and the DUP could signal a new era of stability and co-operation in Northern Ireland.

The most eye-catching feature of the Hillsborough Agreement is the timetable for the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Executive at Stormont. By 12 April Northern Ireland should have control of policing for the first time since direct rule was imposed in 1972.

The symbolic import of this move should not be underestimated. Sinn Fein overturned their historic opposition to the Northern Ireland police only in 2007 – in return they demanded the devolution of policing to Stormont. The possibility of a republican in charge of justice has haunted unionists, particularly those in the DUP. But under this deal, the justice ministry should be under the control of the cross-community Alliance party.

Yesterday’s deal also purports to offer a solution to the issue of Orange Order parades, arguably the greatest stumbling block. Based loosely on proposals put forward by Lord Ashdown in 2008, the parades commission – which unionists accuse of bias towards nationalist resident groups – will be disbanded.

Due to legal constraints this will not happen until after this summer’s marching season, but starting on Tuesday a working group will meet for three weeks to outline alternative arrangements for resolving contentious parades.

Unionists believe its report will be favourable to marchers. There could be trouble if it isn’t. The report is due out just days before the cross-party vote on the devolution of policing, which takes place in Stormont on 9 March. If the report is not perceived as a victory for the Orangemen than many of the 14 DUP assembly members who rejected a draft of the Hillsborough deal earlier this week could be expected to oppose the policing vote – with potentially disastrous consequences.

Nevertheless, the Hillsborough deal is an important step forward. Finally, the main players appear to be working in partnership – though only the next few weeks will tell if the process really has grown up.