DUP Stormont stalemate is ‘punishing workers’, Sinn Féin says

Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill and Conor Murphy stand in front of microphones, dressed in winter coats, in Hillsborough, Co Down
Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill and Conor Murphy address the press following talks with Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris (Jonathan Porter / Press Eye)

Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill has said that it is becoming “increasingly untenable” for the DUP to refuse to enter powersharing over Brexit and the protocol.

She said there had been no indications of a “chink of light” on the talks between the UK Government and the DUP, and said she was not feeling “very positive” after a meeting with Chris Heaton-Harris at Hillsborough Castle.

The secretary of state is chairing bilateral talks with the leaders of the main Stormont parties in his latest effort to break the powersharing impasse.

The talks are taking place ahead of the largest public sector strike in Northern Ireland’s history on Thursday when workers in 15 trade unions will take part in mass industrial action across health, education and the civil service.

The Assembly has been effectively collapsed for almost two years. The DUP is refusing to participate until unionist concerns around post-Brexit trading arrangements are addressed.

The party has insisted it will not end its blockade until it secures legislative assurances from the Government on Northern Ireland’s trading position within the UK.

Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris has said his talks with the party over the Windsor Framework have concluded, although the DUP has insisted engagement is continuing.

Ms O’Neill said on Monday that this is “increasingly untenable”, and said there had been no indications of a “chink of light” on the UK Government-DUP talks.

(left to right) Sinn Fein representatives MLA Conor Murphy, advisor Stephen McGlade and vice-president Michelle O’Neill leave Hillsborough Castle after meeting with Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris
Stormont Assembly (left to right) Sinn Fein representatives MLA Conor Murphy, advisor Stephen McGlade and vice-president Michelle O’Neill leave Hillsborough Castle after meeting with Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris (Liam McBurney/PA)

“I think the further we get away from the Windsor Framework, which was completed last year, I think it’s increasingly untenable that the DUP can hide behind that argument that this is about Brexit and the (Northern Ireland) Protocol,” she said.

“I think many people, reasonable minds, would turn their heads to ‘is this about that or is this about the election result of May last year?’ I think that that will become very clear in the coming days.”

The Sinn Féin vice president said that Mr Heaton-Harris had indicated during their Monday meeting that he would introduce new legislation if there is no restored executive this week.

“Clearly, he has decisions to make as to what comes next. If we get to Thursday and there still is no restored executive, then there has to be new legislation, and he’s indicated today, that’s what he will do,” she said at Hillsborough Castle.

She called on the DUP to end the stalemate in the “small window” before Thursday’s deadline.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson pressed the British government to release funding to make public sector pay awards.

He was speaking after meeting with Mr Heaton-Harris at Hillsborough Castle this afternoon. He also spoke with representatives of a teachers’ union who chanted “fair pay for teachers” as the DUP delegation left.

Speaking to media, Sir Jeffrey insisted that having Stormont resumed tomorrow “won’t solve problems”.

“We need the funding in place. The secretary of state and the Treasury have indicated that there is funding available and we’re saying they should now bring that forward and make those public sector pay awards,” he said.

“There’s nothing to stop that from happening - you don’t need to have a functioning Stormont in order for the secretary of state to use the temporary powers that he has given to himself for that purpose. He has the power to set the budget. He has the power to deal with this issue and we’re saying to the Secretary of State that he should get on and do that.”

Sir Jeffrey also indicated his party has made further progress in talks with the UK government over unionists’ concerns around post-Brexit trading arrangements. The DUP has said it will not participate in devolved government until those concerns are addressed.

“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.

“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.”

Sir Jeffrey said he “made it clear” in his meeting with Mr Heaton-Harris that he wants the government to intervene to deliver the money already set aside for public sector pay awards.

“This does require the approval of Treasury and I know that in fairness to the secretary of state he has been working to try and get that approval to enable the release of the funding so that our public sector workers can receive the pay award they undoubtedly deserve for the current financial year, and we would urge the UK government to do the right thing,” he said.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood urged the British government to release funding to make a pay award to public sector workers ahead of Thursday’s strike action.

He said he believes it is “scandalous we’re still at this point” while the Stormont assembly remains collapsed amid DUP protest action over post-Brexit trading arrangements, adding we’re in a “twilight zone waiting for the DUP to make a decision”.

“The first thing that I said to the secretary of state was, ‘we now know you have the money so let’s get spent’,” he said.

“Let’s avoid the strike on Thursday. The people who are forced to go out and strike and give up a day’s pay, have nothing to do with this political gamesmanship that’s going on.

“They’re just ordinary workers who we ask to do the most difficult jobs in society who are getting underpaid by any standard, and they should be entitled to that money and the Secretary of State should get on and pay them.

“He has said that he doesn’t have a legal power but as we all know, the legal power will be hard to find, and the British government could bring in a law tomorrow to get these people paid. I think they should get on with it.”

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long appealed once again for the DUP to return to powersharing, but added that her pleas may fall on “deaf ears”.

“I would still at this stage appeal to the DUP to consider returning to Stormont and restoring an assembly and executive,” she said.

“I realise that I may well be talking to deaf ears at this stage, but I do believe that 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 said that the £3.3 billion on offer from the UK government was not something to be “sniffed at” and said there was “no suggestion from Treasury” that the money would still be available if there was no return to powersharing.

Ms Long warned that patience with Northern Ireland in London is “running out”.

She insisted the north would be in a “much stronger position” with a functioning government to argue for resources.

“Patience with Northern Ireland and with the DUP in particular at Westminster has all but expired, and I think the time has now come for us to take control of our own situation, start to make the difficult choices that will be required of all of us in government and start to do it now for the sake of the people that we represent,” she said.

Today’s talks came as the Stormont Assembly is to be recalled later this week in a bid to back a motion to endorse fair pay settlements for public sector workers.

The recall petition tabled by Sinn Féin received the required 30 MLA signatures.

The Assembly will sit at 12pm on Wednesday.

The DUP participated in today's Hillsborough Castle talks (Jonathan Porter / Press Eye)

Several previous attempts to reconstitute the Assembly have already failed as the DUP has not supported the election of a speaker at the outset of the sittings.

Ms O’Neill also agreed with Alliance Party leader Naomi Long that political talks need to be divorced from the issue of public sector pay.

In December, the UK Government offered the parties a £3.3 billion package to stabilise finances in Northern Ireland, including £600 million to settle public sector pay claims.

However, it is dependent on the Stormont institutions being restored.

Stormont parties have said Mr Heaton-Harris should release the funds for the public sector pay awards immediately.

Ms O’Neill said: “We find ourselves in a scenario where the politics are stagnant and the money that’s there to pay public sector workers is hanging in the balance. So, we made sure that he was pretty clear of our view, which is that that money should be paid and he (Heaton-Harris) should absolutely divorce the two things.

“He’d have to speak for himself in terms of what he intends to do and I think that will become clear over the course of the coming days, but we won’t give up in terms of pressing the case for the money to be paid.”

Mrs Long told the BBC: “The pay issues need to be divorced from the current political impasse.

“It isn’t the fault of workers in Northern Ireland that we have this situation, they should not be used as leverage in the political arena.

“If we don’t get the Assembly restored, he will still have to make decisions around pay so I see no reason why he (Mr Heaton-Harris) can’t do that at this point.”

The Northern Ireland Office has repeatedly said that the Secretary of State has no authority to negotiate pay in the region as it is a devolved matter for the Stormont parties.

Trade union leaders gathered at Hillsborough Castle ahead of talks between Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris and Stormont party leaders.

As she arrived at the talks, Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill spoke to parents of children with special needs who are protesting about the impact of potential strike action.

Ms O’Neill told the parents she would be raising their concerns during the meeting.

Health trust bosses in Northern Ireland have warned that mass strike action planned for Thursday will have a “profound impact” on services.

The chief executives of the five hospital trusts and the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service said the disruption caused would be on a “massive and unprecedented scale”, with a best case scenario resulting in service provision similar to that offered on Christmas Day.

Nurses, midwives and other healthcare workers will be among the tens of thousands of public sector employees taking to the picket lines on Thursday in what unions are calling Northern Ireland’s biggest ever strike.

Workers are demanding that a pay award made to counterparts elsewhere in the UK is introduced in Northern Ireland.

In a joint statement, the trust chief executives said: “We are deeply concerned that the planned industrial action on Thursday 18th January will have a profound impact on our services, which are already under enormous strain.

“The disruption will be on a massive and unprecedented scale.

“Minimal and emergency services only will be available throughout Northern Ireland, similar to Christmas Day, at best.

“It is a tragedy that our colleagues, who are the backbone of our health and social care service, feel they have no alternative but to take this action.

“We would repeat our call for all staff to be properly rewarded for their work.”