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Stormont powersharing set to return after DUP executive backs deal

DUP leader Sir Jeffery Donaldson during a press conference after the party executive held a meeting about going back into Stormont (Liam McBurney/PA)
DUP leader Sir Jeffery Donaldson during a press conference after the party executive held a meeting about going back into Stormont (Liam McBurney/PA)

Powersharing in Northern Ireland is set to return after the DUP party executive backed a Government deal aimed at addressing its concerns over post-Brexit trade barriers.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said he would drop the blockade on devolution at Stormont once the Government implemented the various legislative assurances and other measures it has offered his party.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton Harris welcomed the step and made clear the Government would deliver on its end of the deal.

Sir Jeffrey told reporters in a post-1am press conference in Co Down that he had secured the “decisive” backing of the 130-strong party executive during a marathon meeting on Monday night.

He said DUP party officers – a key 12-strong decision making body – had also “mandated” him to move forward on the basis he was proposing.

During the powersharing impasse, the DUP has used “seven tests” to measure any proposals designed to address its concerns on the trading arrangements. Sir Jeffrey said the package on the table represented “progress” across all seven tests.

Support for the deal is not unanimous within the DUP and several senior figures remain fiercely opposed to the proposed agreement to restore powersharing.

Asked about potential dissent within the party, Sir Jeffrey added: “I am confident that all members of the party will accept what was a decisive move by the party executive this evening.”

Around 50 loyalist and unionist protesters assembled outside Monday night’s meeting at the Larchfield estate in Co Down, many carrying posters and banners warning against a DUP “sellout”.

Some shouted at DUP members as they drove into the grounds of the venue.

The party has been using a veto power to block Stormont’s devolved institutions for two years in protest at post-Brexit arrangements that have created trade barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

It has been involved in protracted talks with the Government aimed at securing concessions on the arrangements that would address its concerns around trade and sovereignty.

Sir Jeffrey insisted he had secured sufficient party backing to initiate a sequence of events that would result in Stormont’s return.

“The officers, Assembly group, parliamentary group and the central executive of the Democratic Unionist Party have now been briefed and considered all aspects of our negotiations between the UK Government and the DUP,” he said.

“I am pleased to report that the party executive has now endorsed the proposals that I have put to them.

“The party has concluded that subject to the binding commitments between the Democratic Unionist Party and the UK Government being fully and faithfully delivered as agreed, including the tabling and passing of new legislative measures in Parliament and final agreement on a timetable, the package of measures in totality does provide a basis for our party to nominate members to the Northern Ireland Executive, thus seeing the restoration of the locally elected institutions.”

Stormont Assembly
A protester checks his mobile phone while standing outside Larchfield Estate where the DUP held a private party meeting on Monday night (Liam McBurney/PA)

Unionist critics of Sir Jeffrey’s move, both inside and outside the DUP, believe the Stormont boycott should only end once all economic barriers created by Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol, and the subsequent Windsor Framework, are removed.

While the deal being offered by the Government will seek to reduce red tape and offer additional measures aimed at strengthening GB-NI ties, they will not result in the axing of the EU and the UK’s jointly agreed protocol and framework.

Mr Heaton Harris hailed what he described as a “welcome and significant step” by the DUP.

“I am grateful to Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and colleagues for the constructive dialogue over the past months and to the other political parties in Northern Ireland for the patience they have shown during this time,” he said.

“I am pleased that the DUP have agreed to accept the package of measures that the UK Government has put forward and as a result they are ready to return to the Northern Ireland Assembly and nominate representatives to the Northern Ireland Executive.

“Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said this is subject to the binding commitments between the Democratic Unionist Party and the UK Government – I can confirm that we will stick to this agreement.

Stormont Assembly
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris outside Hillsborough Castle

“I now believe that all the conditions are in place for the Assembly to return, the parties entitled to form an Executive are meeting tomorrow to discuss these matters and I hope to be able to finalise this deal with the political parties as soon as possible.”

Sinn Fein would be in line to take the First Minister’s job in any restored ministerial executive in Belfast.

Party president Mary Lou McDonald said she was optimistic Stormont could return before the next legislative deadline for forming an administration, February 8.

“I am optimistic having heard Jeffrey Donaldson’s public declaration that we will see the northern institutions back up and running before the February 8 deadline with a fully functioning Assembly and Executive and north south bodies,” she said.

“Sinn Fein will now engage with the parties and both governments to ensure we now all press on without delay.

“It is vital there is political stability to address the scale of the crisis across our public services.

“Let’s now focus minds on the job at hand and to the solutions required to support workers and families who want and deserve functioning government.”

DUP efforts to keep details of Monday’s executive meeting secret were seriously undermined when Jamie Bryson, a loyalist activist and vocal opponent of the Government deal, posted on X, formerly Twitter, what he said were live updates from the confidential briefing – posts that included details of apparent attempts to find out who was leaking the information to Mr Bryson.

Sir Jeffrey told the press conference at the Hinch Distillery in Ballynahinch that the package, which he said would be published by the Government in due course, safeguarded Northern Ireland’s place in the Union and restored its place within the UK internal market.

“It will remove checks for goods moving within the UK and remaining in Northern Ireland and will end Northern Ireland automatically following future EU laws,” he said.

“There will be legislation to provide new legal and practical protections for the Acts of Union and which guarantees unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the rest of the United Kingdom.

“In the coming days, in addition to the publication of the details of the new package of proposals, the UK Government will be required to deliver on the legislative commitments they have made to us.”

Stormont Assembly
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson leaving his party’s HQ at Dundela in east Belfast ahead of Monday night’s executive meeting (Liam McBurney/PA).

Sir Jeffrey said he had also secured cross party support for the proposals at Westminster.

“Therefore, regardless of who forms the next UK Government, these agreed measures will be taken forward beyond the forthcoming general election,” he said.

“Throughout this process, we have been clear and have made clear we will only be able to move after the Government faithfully delivers on the implementation of its legal and other commitments.

“The package of measures will require a significant number of actions to be taken and we look forward with confidence to their ongoing implementation, according to an agreed timeline.

“Upon that basis, the Democratic Unionist Party would support the calling of a meeting of the Northern Ireland Assembly to elect the speaker and facilitate the nomination of ministers.”

He continued: “I believe that with the faithful delivery of this package of measures, hard work and dedication, we will be able to look back on this moment as the defining time when Northern Ireland’s place within the Union was safeguarded, and our place within the United Kingdom internal market was restored.

“Over the coming period, we will work alongside others to build a thriving Northern Ireland firmly within the Union for this and succeeding generations.

“When our grandchildren look back on this period, they will be able to say we had a just cause, we held the line, we restored the balance and we secured a positive future for Northern Ireland and its integral place in the Union of the United Kingdom.”