Northern Ireland

Time for DUP to face down critics and return to government, Naomi Long says

The Alliance Party leader met striking workers at the Ulster Hospital, where she said she remained ‘fundamentally optimistic’ of a Stormont return

Naomi Long is leader of the Alliance Party
Naomi Long is leader of the Alliance Party Naomi Long is leader of the Alliance Party

It is time for DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson to face down his critics and restore the devolved powersharing institutions at Stormont, Alliance Party leader Naomi Long has said.

Mrs Long said she remained fundamentally optimistic that Stormont would return, because she doesn’t see “anywhere else for the DUP to go”.

The Alliance Party leader was speaking as she visited striking workers at the Ulster Hospital near Belfast.

The powersharing institutions collapsed almost two years ago and the DUP has been involved in a process of seeking legislative assurances from the Government over post-Brexit trading arrangements.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has said the negotiations with the unionist party over the Windsor Framework have concluded, while Sir Jeffrey said talks are still going on.

While hopes had been raised that the DUP may return to Stormont ahead of Christmas, a number of politicians gave a more downbeat assessment during a failed attempt to elect an Assembly speaker on Wednesday.

Mrs Long said: “I think there was an opportunity before Christmas but the DUP, in this debacle have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

“It was an opportunity before Christmas to come in, not to do it under the pressure of a deadline, but to do it of their own volition, and they messed that up, they missed that opportunity.

“I think that’s why people are downbeat.

“For all that Jeffrey says talking continues, it doesn’t. We know that there has been clarification offered but the negotiation is over, the Secretary of State is clear about that.

“I don’t know who Jeffrey is talking to but he’s not talking to the Secretary of State in terms of a negotiation.”

Mrs Long said that after the Government had concluded its negotiations with the DUP and offered a financial package, people were left wondering what more it would take to restore powersharing.

She said: “If the Government has given all it can on the Windsor Framework, and if we are saying we have got a good deal over finances, and yes we would like a better deal, but that was never the reason for not having an executive.

“With all those things being equal, why would the DUP not go in?

“What would change after today that would allow them to go back in?

“I remain fundamentally optimistic because I don’t think there is anywhere else for the DUP to go, I think they need the Assembly and I think they know that, the question is whether they have the courage to face down their critics.

Mrs Long said the Stormont stalemate had contributed to the public sector fragility which led to the strike action.

She said: “There is nobody in charge. For five of the last seven years we have had no government at Stormont. That has contributed to the fragility of our public services, it has contributed to the fact that people are underpaid.

“We really need to get Stormont up and running, we need to get our hands on the extra money which has been offered from Westminster.

“It will not resolve all of the pay issues, these go much deeper, but it is a good start and it will allow us to at least open up conversations with the unions about how we re-establish some proper means of ensuring people keep their pay in line with what is happening in the rest of the country.”

She added: “I think people see that the UK Government is using the strikes as leverage to try and force politicians back into work, and while I understand why they are doing that, I think it’s immoral.

“People have a claim on pay which is irrefutable and needs to be addressed, irrespective of whether Stormont returns or not.

“It is no more legitimate to hold people’s pay to ransom than it is for the DUP to hold the institutions to ransom.

“We need to get back to proper politics where we actually do the jobs we are paid to do and we pay people properly.”