Northern Ireland

DUP gives green light for restoration of Stormont devolution on Saturday

It comes after two pieces of legislation contained in the deal the party struck with the Government passed through the House of Commons.

Parliament Buildings in the Stormont Estate
Parliament Buildings in the Stormont Estate (Liam McBurney/PA)

The DUP has given the green light for the recall of the Stormont Assembly, with powersharing due to be restored in Northern Ireland on Saturday.

The announcement from party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson came after two pieces of legislation contained in the Government’s deal to resurrect devolution were fast-tracked through the House of Commons.

The two motions were approved by MPs on Thursday without the need for a formal vote.

While the Lords debated the measures outlined in the Government’s Strengthening the Union command paper they will not deliberate on the legislation until February 13.

The statutory instruments will not become law until after peers have had their say.

Sir Jeffrey said he had written to the outgoing Speaker of the Stormont Assembly Alex Maskey to confirm his party was prepared to end its two-year blockade on the institutions.

“I expect the Assembly will meet on Saturday following the Speaker consulting and making all necessary arrangements,” he said.

“It is my intention to meet with the leaders of the other executive parties during the course of Friday to finalise arrangements on the key issues that will be tackled by the incoming executive.

“Following the completion of detailed internal party processes with my party officers, all our elected members and DUP peers in the Lords, as well as the Government having taken the legislative steps required of it, we are now able to re-establish the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland executive.

“We do so confidently as we look forward to continuing to work on all the issues that matter to people in Northern Ireland and to use all the new structures to shape the future, confident in the knowledge that much has been achieved.”

The move comes after the DUP agreed a package of measures with the Government that Sir Jeffrey says has effectively removed the so-called Irish Sea border for goods moving from Great Britain to, and staying in, Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said he was delighted at the move to recall the Assembly.

He said: “The Government made commitments to introduce legislation in our command paper and we have now followed through on those commitments.

“I look forward to working with the new first minister, deputy first minister, and all the ministers in a returned Northern Ireland executive, alongside Northern Ireland Assembly members, to improve the lives of people living here.”

When the Northern Ireland Assembly does reconvene at Parliament Buildings it will witness the historically significant moment of the appointment of its first nationalist first minister, Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill.

While Sir Jeffrey has secured the backing of a majority of party colleagues to accept the deal, there are those within the DUP who remain deeply sceptical of the proposed agreement to restore powersharing.

Parliamentary debate on the two motions on Thursday laid bare the divisions at the very top of the DUP, with senior party members Lord Dodds and Sammy Wilson voicing opposition to the proposals, albeit both stopped stop of criticising their leader.

Lord Dodds insisted the sea border “still exists”, while East Antrim MP Mr Wilson said Northern Ireland remained “subservient” to EU rules.

Sir Jeffrey has said the Government package to revive devolution in Belfast has delivered “fundamental change” to UK/EU arrangements on post-Brexit trade.

He insists his party has negotiated “clear” alterations to the Windsor Framework by ending routine checks on goods moving from Great Britain to final destinations in Northern Ireland.

The Government faced questions in Parliament from Brexiteer backbenchers who expressed concern that the deal agreed with the DUP would place limits on the UK’s ability to diverge from EU regulations.

Mr Heaton-Harris sought to reassure MPs that the measures would not reduce the UK’s capacity to diverge.

While Sir Jeffrey was championing the deal in the Commons, sitting on the same benches, Mr Wilson made clear his opposition.

The arch-Brexiteer said it was “well known that I do not support this deal” and suggested MPs should have had more time to examine the proposals, which he said were “hurried through”.

In the Lords, former DUP deputy leader Lord Dodds said many Northern Ireland unionists remained deeply worried about the operation of a border in the Irish Sea despite the Government’s plans.

He said EU laws governed “large swathes” of Northern Ireland’s economy.

“These are fundamentally important constitutional and economic issues and many unionists still are concerned about these issues,” he added.

Speaking in the Commons, Mr Heaton-Harris delivered a robust defence of the measures agreed with the DUP.

“This package will safeguard and durably strengthen Northern Ireland’s integral place in the Union and the UK’s internal market, and do so by placing commitments in that package into law,” he said.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said his party did not support the command paper, claiming it advocated a pro-Union position.

“We think it has moved far beyond the principles set out in the Good Friday Agreement, it is undermining north/south co-operation, and it’s far too much focused on east/west,” he said.

Mr Heaton-Harris rejected that characterisation.

Earlier on Thursday, Irish premier Leo Varadkar said the EU would have “some questions” about the deal, which pledges significant changes to post-Brexit trading arrangements.

Leo Varadkar said that while the European Commission would have queries about the command paper, there were no suggestions on an initial assessment that it contained any “red flags”.

Major changes to the UK/EU legal framework would require the approval of Brussels.

But Downing Street has said the measures announced on Wednesday do not require specific EU sign-off, calling them “operational” changes to the framework, without altering the “fundamentals” of the bilateral deal.

Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron and Mr Heaton-Harris both spoke to EU executive vice-president Maros Sefcovic on Wednesday to outline the proposals contained in the command paper.

In a statement, the EU Commission said it would “carefully analyse” the measures.

Mr Varadkar was in Brussels on Thursday to attend a European Council meeting. The Taoiseach said he had spoken to commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday about the UK/DUP deal.

“There are definitely going to be some questions about what was agreed between the UK and DUP but nobody is at this stage saying that there’s any red flags or anything that gives us major concern,” Mr Varadkar told reporters in Brussels.

“And certainly, from our point of view in Ireland, our priority was always to make sure there is no hard border between north and south, I think that’s been achieved and protected.

“And also to make sure that there would never be any doubt about our position in the single market of the European Union. They were always our priorities, our red lines, and they haven’t been breached.”

On Tuesday, before the command paper’s publication, the UK and EU did announce a joint move on trade tariff quotas that would increase the ability of Northern Ireland traders to import internationally sourced agri-food goods via UK free trade deals with other countries.

The paper commits to replacing the Windsor Framework’s green lane process at Northern Ireland ports, which requires percentages of goods to be checked as they arrive from Great Britain, with a “UK internal market system” that will govern the movement of goods that remain within the United Kingdom.

Checks would still be carried out but on a risk-based/intelligence-led model to combat illegality and disease, rather than routine stops of disembarking lorries.

Businesses using the internal market system would also need to be signed up to a trusted trader scheme.

Sir Jeffrey has hailed the move as a key concession that would effectively scrap the contentious so-called Irish Sea border for goods destined to remain within the UK.

Thursday’s motions at Parliament were on the draft Windsor Framework (Constitutional Status of Northern Ireland) Regulations 2024 and the draft Windsor Framework (Internal Market and Unfettered Access) Regulations 2024.

One provides legislative assurances on Northern Ireland’s constitutional position within the UK, the other would deliver the changes to the trading system by amending the Internal Markets Act.

The measure to reduce checks on GB/NI trade is part of a wide-ranging deal agreed between the DUP and the Government that would bring about the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland after a two-year hiatus.

The DUP has agreed to drop its two-year blockade of Stormont in exchange for the Government measures aimed at addressing its concerns about post-Brexit trading arrangements that created economic barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

The return of Stormont will see the Treasury release a £3.3 billion package to support under-pressure public services in Northern Ireland.

The financial package, announced by the Government before Christmas, includes money to settle the demands of striking public sector workers in the region this year.

Despite the moves to restore the devolved institutions, industrial action continued on Thursday, with public transport workers and school support staff picketing in the latest day of strikes in Northern Ireland.