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The Stormont House Agreement of December 2014 was intended to meet concerns over welfare reform, to ease rigidities in the Northern Ireland Executive’s financial position, to reform some aspects of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and to address sensitive issues of flags, parading and the past.

Implementation ran aground over welfare reform. Sinn Fein wanted to use devolved powers to offset the impact of UK Government reforms, but agreement could not be reached and legislation was not passed. The matter continued to create problems in agreeing a balanced budget in Northern Ireland, one of the factors that had given rise to the Stormont House process.

A statement in August 2015 by the Police Service of Northern Ireland implying the continued existence of the IRA led the UUP to leave the Executive and the DUP to adopt a policy of rolling resignations.

By late summer 2015 the political institutions were in crisis, and the UK Government acknowledged a real risk that Northern Ireland would return to direct rule.

Talks between the five largest parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly, those entitled to seats in the Executive, and the UK and Irish Governments took place for ten weeks in the autumn.

At the same time, an independent commission stated that paramilitary groups still existed, and their members engaged in violence, but that their leaderships were committed to political objectives achieved through peaceful means. The DUP returned to its role in the Executive.

In November 2015 the talks ended with the Fresh Start Agreement.

This included measures on welfare reform and paramilitarism. It also included material on other aspects of the Stormont House Agreement, such as a start date for the devolution of corporation tax, a draft Northern Ireland Assembly bill to reduce the number of Members for each constituency, a restriction on spending plans that exceeded the block grant or borrowing limits, and an extension of the period between the Assembly meeting and the Executive being formed, to allow agreement on a Programme for Government.

UK legislation had allowed the devolution of corporation tax earlier in 2015, and, after the Fresh Start Agreement, had created powers for the Secretary of State to enact welfare reform.

The present Bill takes forward commitments in the Fresh Start Agreement on tackling paramilitarism and on balanced budgets. There is a new Independent Reporting Commission to monitor progress towards ending paramilitary activity. There are also an addition to the ministerial Pledge of Office and an undertaking for Members of the Assembly, which include commitments against paramilitarism, and statements that Ministers/Members accept no control other than their democratic mandate and their personal and party views.

The Bill also creates a longer period between the Assembly meeting after an election and the creation of an Executive. This is to allow greater discussion of a Programme of Government, with the aim of promoting bipartisanship.

Aspects of the Fresh Start Agreement relating to the Stormont House Agreement’s provisions on the past await further legislation.

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