Frustration has been expressed over the DUP’s stance following talks between Stormont’s parties and the Northern Ireland Secretary, as Jeffrey Donaldson’s claimed “progress” had been made over restoring power-sharing.
Discussions between the parties and Chris Heaton-Harris were held at Hillsborough Castle on Monday as efforts continue to restore the Executive before Thursday’s deadline that would see a fresh Stormont election required.
The British government is offering a £3.3 billion package to kickstart power-sharing following the DUP’s Stormont boycott over the Northern Ireland Protocol, which caused the collapse of the institutions almost two years ago.
Following Monday’s talks with Mr Heaton-Harris, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson insisted progress had been made towards London meeting his party’s demands.
“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,” he said, referring to post-Brexit trading arrangements.
“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.”
He said he is “working every day” on the stalemate and wants to see the political institutions restored.
Mr Donaldson also urged the Northern Ireland Secretary to work on making funding available for public sector pay awards, saying he would “urge the UK Government to do the right thing”.
However, Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill struck a less positive note, saying there was no “chink of light” on progress between the DUP and the UK government.
“It’s one year since the Windsor Framework was done. It’s two years since the DUP decided to boycott the assembly and our politics remains stagnant,” she said after Monday’s meeting.
“We just discussed with the Secretary of State what he intends to do later this week, certainly whenever we reach the deadline of Thursday January 18, which he originally set to have an Executive restored.
“I can’t say we feel very positive by what we have heard today, but the Secretary of State will have to speak to that himself.”
She said she shared the frustration of members of the public and repeated her calls for the DUP to restore power-sharing by Thursday’s deadline, urging Mr Donaldson to “step up to the mark”.
Ms O’Neill also called on Mr Heaton-Harris to “divorce” the issue of public sector pay from the Stormont stalemate.
Meanwhile, Alliance Party leader Naomi Long repeated her appeal for the DUP to return to the Executive as “progress has been made on the key issues that they’re concerned about”.
““I do believe that the community is continuing to hurt more and more,” she added.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said it was “scandalous we’re still at this point” regarding the Stormont impasse, adding the north was in a “twilight zone waiting for the DUP to make a decision”.
Following the talks with the parties, Mr Heaton-Harris said the pre-Christmas talks he had with the DUP had been a “fundamentally disappointing time”.
“Because I had hoped that we’d done enough for everyone to come together at that point,” he said.
“This week, there’s other matters at hand. There is a decision to be made on Wednesday for MLAs in Stormont, and I’d like to think that all the conditions are there for them to do that.”
He added: Not only have I understood the issues that unionism has had, but (I) tried to deal with them appropriately and fairly. The best plan for Northern Ireland is for the executive to go back, for the Windsor Framework to operate, it is operating smoothly, operating well; and for us all politicians at every level to get back to work.”