Northern Ireland talks to restore the Stormont Assembly will continue on Monday after the parties failed to reach an agreement yesterday. Earlier this month, the UK announced a £2.5-billion cash injection to support the cash-strapped public services and reestablish the Northern Ireland Assembly. Once again, all eyes will be on the DUP, who walked out of the NI Assembly almost two years ago. The funding package will only be available if the Northern Ireland Executive gets back up and running. Speculation that the DUP is close to agreeing on a return has grown over the past few weeks. However, party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson told reporters on Monday that there was “still some way to go”. Other Northern Ireland parties, including Sinn Fein, the SDLP, and the Alliance Party, questioned whether the amount on offer was sufficient. Northern Ireland Secretary Chis Heaton-Harris said he was ready to ask Rishi Sunak for additional funding.
Meanwhile, in Dublin, Tánaiste Micheál Martin told TDs in the Irish parliament that he hoped a deal could be struck before Christmas, sentiments echoed by Doug Beattie from the Ulster Unionist Party. He spoke of a “real sense of momentum” during the latest Northern Ireland talks. Martin, the current Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, held discussions with counterpart David Cameron yesterday to work toward restoring the NI Executive.
On Wednesday evening, Mr Heaton-Harris chaired another round of talks involving the four main NI parties at Hillsborough Castle. In a statement, Heaton-Harris said:
“I would like to thank the parties for their thorough and constructive engagement over the last three days. The government has outlined a fair and generous package that could assist a returning executive in stabilising its finances and protecting public services.
“Over the course of our discussions, a number of points have been raised which require further clarification, including the need for firmer proposals from the parties for how a restored executive plans to deliver the transformation of public services.
“We will be continuing our dialogue with the parties on these issues over the coming days, with the single focus of seeing the return of a locally elected and accountable devolved government.”
Crunch time for the DUP
Talks between the UK government and the DUP over Northern Ireland’s position within the UK are ongoing. The DUP is still seeking reassurance and the future-proofing of the province within the British internal market. Mr Donaldson told reporters:
“We are engaging with the government, and I think we’ve made significant progress there over the last few weeks.
“In terms of where that process is, there are still some issues we are engaged with the government on, but undoubtedly, we are approaching the time when we will be able to examine where we have got to, the progress that has been made and perhaps come to some decisions.
“The DUP has made its position clear – and that position is shared right across the party – that we want to see the political institutions restored on a sustainable basis.
“That means we have got to not only deal with the issues related to the Northern Ireland Protocol, to restore Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom and its internal market, but also we have got to restore the cross-community consensus which ensures powersharing can work.
“Of course, I want an outcome as soon as possible, but I want it to be the right outcome because we don’t want to be in this position in six months or a year’s time.”
Responding to a question posed by the DUP leader in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Rishi Sunak confirmed the government’s willingness to introduce legislation to copperfasten Northern Ireland’s position within the British internal market. He added that his government would work “at pace” when amending the UK Internal Market Act to “guarantee and future-proof” the province’s market access “in all scenarios”.