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‘Hard to see any barriers for Stormont getting back to work’ – Heaton-Harris

‘Hard to see any barriers for Stormont getting back to work’ – Heaton-Harris

It is “hard to see any barriers” to resurrect devolved government in Northern Ireland, Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris has insisted.

As the region approaches two years without the Stormont Assembly, Mr Heaton-Harris said he believes “all the conditions necessary are now in place for the political representatives in Northern Ireland to govern on behalf of the people who elected them”.

He said the Government has done “everything we can” in talks with the DUP over the Northern Ireland Protocol, and said it is “time for decisions to be made”.

“It is time for the talking and debate to finish. It is time for Stormont to get back to work,” he added.

If Stormont has not been restored by the Thursday deadline, Mr Heaton-Harris said he will have “various decisions to make”, adding: “I will set out my next steps in due course.”

Public sector workers protested outside Hillsborough Castle across Monday while the major Stormont parties met with Mr Heaton-Harris ahead of a major strike planned for Thursday over pay.

Stormont Assembly
Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O’Neill (right) speaks to protesters from the Colin Autism Support and Advice Group as they protest outside Hillsborough Castle (Liam McBurney/PA)

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.

It will be available when the institutions are restored.

The parties urged Mr Heaton-Harris to release the money for the pay awards now to stop Thursday’s strike, but he said public sector pay is a “devolved matter”.

The Secretary of State added: “As of, whatever it is, a minute past or a minute to midnight on, Thursday night, I might need to call an election.

“I have a duty to decide whether an election is called.

“And also, actually, for an executive to be reformed I need a piece of primary legislation.

“So next week, I will be laying primary legislation before the floor of the House, which is an evolution of some of the things I’ve been saying.

“I will need to also, eventually, in the course of the next few weeks, pass a budget for next year, and all of those matters will be taken into consideration at that point

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 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.

Stormont Assembly
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (centre) speaking to the media with Emma Little-Pengelly and Deputy Leader of the DUP Gavin Robinson outside Hillsborough Castle (Liam McBurney/PA)

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson earlier 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.

“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.

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.