Northern Ireland

Hillsborough talks will focus on stabilising Stormont finances – Heaton-Harris

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris will host talks with Northern Ireland political leaders (James Manning/PA)
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris will host talks with Northern Ireland political leaders (James Manning/PA)

Government talks with Northern Ireland political leaders will focus on stabilising the finances of a returning Stormont Executive, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has said.

Mr Heaton-Harris also said negotiations with the DUP on the post-Brexit Windsor Framework have not concluded, contradicting an earlier claim from Sinn Fein.

Devolved government has not been functioning in Northern Ireland for nearly two years because of the DUP’s ongoing boycott of the institutions in protest at post-Brexit trade agreements.

The DUP has been in negotiation with the Government to secure legislative assurances over Northern Ireland’s economic position in the UK.

The Stormont powersharing institutions have not been functioning for almost two years (Liam McBurney/PA)

Speculation has been growing in recent weeks that the DUP could be closing in on an agreement that could restore the Executive and Assembly at Stormont, with Mr Heaton-Harris having recently said negotiations were in their “final, final phase”.

The Northern Ireland Secretary is meeting the main parties in the region at Hillsborough Castle in Co Down on Monday.

Sinn Fein said it will use the meeting to call for a date to be set to restore the institutions, and urge the Government to deliver an accompanying financial package.

But Mr Heaton-Harris said the discussions will be focused on the sustainability of Northern Ireland’s finances and public services.

The discussions will also involve senior officials from the Northern Ireland Office, the Northern Ireland Civil Service, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury.

Mr Heaton-Harris said: “I have invited representatives from the five largest parties in Northern Ireland to discuss how the Government will work with them to stabilise the finances of a returning Executive.

“My intention is to set out how the Government would assist the parties to address the immediate challenges resulting from 21 months without a functioning Executive.

“We will focus on the need for an incoming Executive to transform public services so they can be delivered in a more sustainable way.

“We will also need to talk about what happens in the event the Executive is not reformed and it is once again left to the UK Government to set a budget for the next financial year.”

On Sunday, Sinn Fein claimed the Government had informed its leadership that the negotiation process with the DUP was over. The NIO and the DUP issued swift denials.

Mr Heaton-Harris said: “In parallel to these meetings, I continue to engage with the DUP and am pleased that those negotiations have made significant progress over recent months, but at this point are yet to conclude.”

Northern Ireland
Sinn Fein Party leader Mary Lou McDonald and vice president Michelle O’Neill will attend the talks at Hillsborough Castle (Niall Carson/PA)

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald, vice president Michelle O’Neill and former Stormont finance minister Conor Murphy will attend Monday’s discussions.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson briefed party members at the weekend that people were “getting over-excited” by the announcement of all-party talks, as he said that more work remained to be done before a return to Stormont is secured.

In an email to party members seen by the PA news agency, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the roundtable discussion is separate from the DUP’s negotiations with the Government in relation to the restoration of devolution.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (right) and Gavin Robinson will attend the talks (Brian Lawless/PA)

Sir Jeffrey said he would be attending the talks on Monday alongside party deputy leader Gavin Robinson and finance spokesman Gordon Lyons.

In the absence of an Executive, the budget for Northern Ireland was set by Mr Heaton-Harris and there have been shortfalls of millions of pounds across a range of Stormont departments.

The Department of Finance has said that despite cuts of more than £900 million, Northern Ireland is on track for an overspend this year of £450 million.

This rises to nearly £1 billion if accounting for a pay rise for NI public sector workers to match that of the other regions of the UK.

Colum Eastwood
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood MP said he wanted to see meaningful dialogue at the talks (Liam McBurney/PA)

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said he wanted to see meaningful dialogue at the Hillsborough talks, not a “cosy catch-up”.

He said: “The SDLP is entering these discussions with three key priorities.

“They must generate the final momentum to restore the Executive, there must be a serious plan to rescue public services and we need to hear how a fair pay reward for public sector workers out on strike will be resourced.

“Anything else is a waste of time.”