Stormont: Party leaders meet ahead of

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2 February 2024, 06:19 GMT

Updated 21 minutes ago

Image caption,

Power-sharing collapsed in February 2022 when Paul Givan resigned as first minister

Party leaders and officials have met to discuss the key issues for an incoming Stormont executive.

The Northern Ireland Assembly will sit on Saturday, two years exactly since power-sharing collapsed.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said his party would end its boycott, after MPs passed legislation on a new deal on post-Brexit trade rules.

They have seen a reduction in their salaries of almost a third since January 2023, enacted by Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris.

The Northern Ireland Office has confirmed that the determination will expire at the end of Sunday, the day after a new assembly speaker is elected.

Leaders of the four parties entitled to seats in the decision-making Stormont executive are meeting to finalise arrangements for Saturday’s special sitting.

The sitting is due to take place at 13:00 GMT on Saturday.

What happens on Saturday?

The first order of business for members (MLAs) when they enter the assembly chamber will be to elect a new speaker – this must happen before anything else.

Once the speaker is elected, the parties entitled to jointly lead the executive – the body that makes decisions and policy in Northern Ireland – will make their nominations.

Image caption,

Michelle O’Neill is in line to become first minister

For the first time, Sinn Féin will nominate a first minister because it won the most seats in the assembly election in May 2022.

The DUP, as the largest unionist party, will nominate a deputy first minister for the first time.

Although the first and deputy first ministers are joint offices and both hold equal power, Michelle O’Neill becoming the first-ever republican first minister of Northern Ireland will mark a symbolic moment.

What’s in the deal?

It will reduce checks and paperwork on goods moving from the rest of the UK into Northern Ireland.

It means there will no longer be “routine” checks on Great Britain goods which are sent to Northern Ireland with the intention of staying there.

Image caption,

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (left) reached a deal with the UK government on post-Brexit trade issues

Those changes involve the maximum flexibility allowed under a previous EU/UK deal it is understood will be acceptable to the EU.

The DUP had demanded changes to the way goods are traded between Northern Ireland and Great Britain in order for it to end its Stormont stand-off.

Any return of a power-sharing executive at Stormont will see the UK Treasury release a £3.3bn package which would help support struggling public services in Northern Ireland.

More funding needed to tackle pay disputes

“What the UK government is offering as part of the package is to cover public sector pay awards for one year only,” he said.

The DUP leader said this equates to about £650m, but that Northern Ireland does not currently “have the means for the next two years and the government knows that needs to be resolved”.

He said he believes they have come to a point where the UK government “recognises there is a shortfall” and a number of meetings will take place to tackle recurring funding.

Sir Jeffrey said that if they do not secure the funding then the newly established executive will not be able settle ongoing pay disputes without taking funds from the £1bn Stabilisation Fund.

Without adequate government funding going forward, he continued, they will not be able to address many issues, such as those in the health service which he described as an “absolute priority” for Stormont.

Who will be the opposition at Stormont?

The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which is the fifth-largest party with eight assembly members, does not qualify to be be part of the next executive and instead will go into opposition.

Speaking to BBC NI’s Good Morning Ulster, SDLP assembly member Matthew O’Toole said the opposition will hold the parties in the executive to account and make the institutions “work effectively for the people of Northern Ireland”.

The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) will not be going into opposition at Stormont and will instead take up a ministerial job in the executive.

Party leader Doug Beattie previously indicated he would have wanted to be part of the official opposition but said his party’s mandate was to re-enter government.

He said that decision was based on a “sense of cohesion” that parties were prepared to work well together in the next executive but added that every department would find itself facing financial struggles.

The party has not indicated which ministerial brief it is vying for but it will get the fifth pick.

The Alliance Party is also entitled to seats in the executive. However, it has yet to confirm if it will enter government or opposition.

Andrew Muir of the Alliance Party told BBC NI’s The View: “There are benefits of going into opposition, but there are also significant benefits of going into government.

On Friday, a group of unionists, including the Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister and activist Jamie Bryson, published a legal opinion from the former Northern Ireland attorney general John Larkin KC.

Image caption,

A group of unionists including Jim Allister (right) and activist Jamie Bryson sought a legal opinion on the deal

Mr Allister said Mr Larkin has concluded that “nothing here restores Article 6 of the Act of Union, it remains in suspension – the consequence of that is colossal”.

He added: “We shared so many platforms with Jeffrey Donaldson. Faced with the spin that has accompanied this deal, we wanted to strip that away and assess what are the legal realities.”

Mr Allister questioned legal advice Sir Jeffrey claimed to have saying his deal removed the Irish Sea border and restored Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market.

Sir Jeffrey has in recent days taken his unionist rivals to task, accusing them of delivering “nothing” when it comes to changing the Northern Ireland Protocol.

“It is Sir Jeffrey that took on this task and has failed – there’s no point trying to divert from that,” said Mr Allister.

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