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DUP leader urges Government to release funding for public sector pay awards

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has pressed the UK Government to release funding to make public sector pay awards.

Sir Jeffrey and party colleagues met Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris at Hillsborough Castle days before a major public sector strike on Thursday.

He also met representatives of a teaching union who chanted “fair pay for teachers” after the DUP delegation spoke with the media.

Thursday will see the largest public sector strike in Northern Ireland’s history when workers with 15 trade unions will take part in industrial action across health, education and the civil service.

The Northern Ireland Secretary is chairing bilateral talks with the leaders of the main Stormont parties in his latest effort to break the powersharing impasse.

The Assembly has been effectively collapsed for almost two years, with the DUP refusing to participate until unionist concerns around post-Brexit trading arrangements are addressed.

The party has insisted it will not end its blockade until it secures legislative assurances from the Government on Northern Ireland’s trading position within the UK.

Speaking to the media, Sir Jeffrey said resuming business at Stormont tomorrow would not “solve problems”.

“We need the funding in place,” he said. “The Secretary of State and the Treasury have indicated that there is funding available and we’re saying they should now bring that forward and make those public sector pay awards.

Stormont Assembly
Chris Heaton-Harris arrives at Hillsborough Castle (Liam McBurney/PA)

“There’s nothing to stop that from happening – you don’t need to have a functioning Stormont in order for the Secretary of State to use the temporary powers that he has given to himself for that purpose.

“He has the power to set the budget. He has the power to deal with this issue and we’re saying to the Secretary of State that he should get on and do that.”

On trading arrangements, Sir Jeffrey added: “I’m glad to report that in the course of those weeks since before Christmas, and in our discussions with the Government, we have made further progress in addressing the outstanding issues that relate to Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom and its internal market.

“I welcome that progress and I think we’re moving forward now towards the moment when, hopefully, decisions can be made as to how we move forward in relation to all of these matters.”

Sir Jeffrey insisted he is “working every day” on the stalemate and wants to see the political institutions restored.

Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill said that it is becoming “increasingly untenable” for the DUP to refuse to enter powersharing over Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol.

She said there had been no indications of a “chink of light” on the talks between the UK Government and the DUP, and she was not feeling “very positive” after a meeting with Mr Heaton-Harris.

The Northern Ireland Secretary has said his talks with the DUP over the Windsor Framework have concluded, although the party has insisted engagement is continuing.

Ms O’Neill said: “I think the further we get away from the Windsor Framework, which was completed last year, I think it’s increasingly untenable that the DUP can hide behind that argument that this is about Brexit and the protocol.

“I think many people, reasonable minds, would turn their heads to ‘is this about that or is this about the election result of May last year?’ I think that that will become very clear in the coming days.

“Clearly, he has decisions to make as to what comes next. If we get to Thursday and there still is no restored executive, then there has to be new legislation, and he’s indicated today, that’s what he will do.”

She called on the DUP to end the stalemate in the “small window” before Thursday.

Stormont Assembly
Sinn Fein representatives Michelle O’Neill and Conor Murphy outside Hillsborough Castle (Liam McBurney/PA)

The Stormont Assembly is to be recalled later this week in a bid to back a motion to endorse fair pay settlements for public sector workers.

The recall petition tabled by Sinn Fein received the required 30 MLA signatures, and the Assembly will sit at 12pm on Wednesday.

Several previous attempts to reconstitute the Assembly have already failed as the DUP has not supported the election of a speaker at the outset of the sittings.

Ms O’Neill agreed with Alliance Party leader Naomi Long that political talks need to be separated from the issue of public sector pay.

On Monday, Ms Long said: “I would still at this stage appeal to the DUP to consider returning to Stormont and restoring an Assembly and Executive.

“I realise that I may well be talking to deaf ears at this stage, but I do believe that progress has been made on the key issues that they’re concerned about.

“I do believe that the community is continuing to hurt more and more.”

Stormont Assembly
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long (Liam McBurney/PA)

She said the billions on offer from the UK Government was not something to be “sniffed at” and there was “no suggestion from Treasury” that the money would still be available if there was no return to powersharing.

In December, the UK Government offered the parties a £3.3 billion package to stabilise finances in Northern Ireland, including £600 million to settle public sector pay claims.

However, it is dependent on the Stormont institutions being restored.

Stormont parties said Mr Heaton-Harris should release the funds for the public sector pay awards immediately.

Ms O’Neill said: “We find ourselves in a scenario where the politics are stagnant and the money that’s there to pay public sector workers is hanging in the balance. So we made sure that he was pretty clear of our view, which is that that money should be paid and he should absolutely divorce the two things.

“He’d have to speak for himself in terms of what he intends to do and I think that will become clear over the course of the coming days, but we won’t give up in terms of pressing the case for the money to be paid.

“It isn’t the fault of workers in Northern Ireland that we have this situation, they should not be used as leverage in the political arena.

“If we don’t get the Assembly restored, he will still have to make decisions around pay so I see no reason why he can’t do that at this point.”

The Northern Ireland Office says the Secretary of State has no authority to negotiate pay in the region as it is a devolved matter for the Stormont parties.