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Smaller parties greet deal with scepticism and questions

First and Deputy First Ministers at Stormont Castle. Picture by Ann McManus

Hailed by Peter Robinson as securing stability and offering "hope for the future", the 67-page 'Fresh Start' deal was last night met with a combination of scepticism and disappointment by the SDLP, Alliance and Ulster Unionists.

The smaller parties involved in the Stormont House negotiations are seeking more time to digest the contents of the agreement, although the welfare element is likely to be pushed through today regardless of any misgivings.

It comes after 10 weeks of talks aimed at reviving the main elements of the Stormont House Agreement which was brokered in run-up to last Christmas.

That collapsed after Sinn Féin accused the DUP of bad faith over measures aimed at mitigating the effects of British government welfare cuts due to be passed by Stormont.

The latest process also sought to incorporate measures to deal with concerns about paramilitarism after IRA members were linked to the August murder of Kevin McGuigan (53) in Belfast's Short Strand.

Much of the 'fresh start' mirrors last year's accord, though it is ostensibly greater on the detail of implementation.

Crucially, however, the component aimed at addressing the legacy of the Troubles is missing, due largely to dispute over a British government insistence on a veto over the release of information to investigative bodies on national security grounds.

The key elements of the final agreement are:

:: Revised measures totalling £585 million over four years to compensate those affected by welfare reforms and cuts in tax credits

:: Welfare changes to be brought in through a 'legislative consent motion' which shifts responsibility for implementation from Stormont to Westminster

:: New political 'principles' aimed at combating paramilitarism

:: The introduction of a regional corporation tax rate of 12.5 per cent in April 2018, albeit at a loss to the block grant

:: A new cross-border task force to fight organised crime and additional funding for the PSNI

:: Irish government support for infrastructure projects in the north, primarily £75m towards the upgrading of the A5.

First Minister Peter Robinson said the deal would "consolidate the peace, secure stability, enable progress and offer all our people hope for the future".

The DUP leader said the plans he and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness set out "represent our desire to overcome the difficulties of the last number of years".

Mr McGuinness said the settlement represented a new opportunity.

"This agreement signals our endeavour to engender the sea change which our community is demanding; a new beginning for politics and an opportunity to move forward with a real sense of purpose."

Secretary of State Mrs Villiers said 'A Fresh Start' addressed the issues that had "cast the greatest shadow" over the future of the devolved institutions.

"This agreement means that Northern Ireland’s finances can be put back on a sustainable footing, ending the long-standing dispute over the budget," she said.

"There will be a fresh emphasis on tackling paramilitarism and organised crime and clear declaration that such activity will never be tolerated."

Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan also said as co-guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement, the Dublin government was determined to fulfil its responsibilities.

Prime Minister David Cameron said it was "an important turning point for Northern Ireland".

But the smaller parties involved in the negotiations, who for weeks have complained of being excluded from a process led by Stormont's 'big two', said they needed more time to consider the detail before giving it their blessing or rejecting the accord.

New SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said his party would "not be bounced or bullied" into backing a deal they given sight of just an hour before an executive meeting yesterday.

"We will not rush to judgment but our judgement will be clear and certain."

However, the Foyle MLA bemoaned the absence of measures for dealing with the past, saying it was the fourth time victims and survivors had been left disappointed by Stormont's response to legacy issues.

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said the document needed careful consideration and there were "questions around the finances".

"We will need to reconcile the various references to additional monies and there are also some glaring omissions," he said.

"We are very disappointed that victims’ hopes have been built up, only to be let down again."

Alliance leader David Ford said his party was sceptical.

"We refuse to sign the people of Northern Ireland up for a future which hasn’t been thought through," he said.

"While we cannot fully endorse all of this deal today, Alliance will play a full and responsible role to implement the parts that make sense for the good of society, and hold others to account on their commitments."

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