There is a “desperate need” for the return of the Stormont Assembly, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has said.
More than a year after the latest effective collapse of the Assembly, Chris Heaton-Harris was left to set a budget for the region in the absence of locally elected ministers.
He said a lot was being asked of the civil service, which was running departments without ministers in a challenging financial environment.
Northern Ireland is facing significant real-term cuts to public services amid soaring inflation and additional pressures including a series of public sector pay demands.
The Stormont parties are set to meet with head of the region’s civil service Jayne Brady later this week.
In Dublin, Irish premier Leo Varadkar said the people of Northern Ireland sent a clear message that they want powersharing back up and running in last week’s election.
He pledged to the Irish Parliament that he and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak would do all they could to help restore Stormont.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said he expects the UK Government to bring forward legislation to address unionist concerns around the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“The Government knows what is needed and I believe the Government will bring forward what is required,” he said, confirming that more financial support for Northern Ireland is part of discussions with the Government.
“Of course, it has to be if we’re to see an Executive restored on a sustainable and stable basis, that’s not just about resolving the issues around the Windsor Framework and the Northern Ireland Protocol, it is also about ensuring that we’ve got the resource to make the reforms that we need in Northern Ireland and to deliver healthcare, education and all the other vital public services,” he said.
“We are developing a range of proposals for the Government, they are aware of the outline of what it is we need.
“It’s not just for the DUP, it’s for Northern Ireland, we need to ensure that when Stormont is restored it can deliver, that the foundations are solid and that the Assembly and Executive is sustainable.
“That’s what I’m in the business of delivering.”
Last week’s local government election saw Sinn Fein overtake the DUP to become the largest party on the councils, after it became the largest party at Stormont last year.
The DUP maintains its vote in the poll, which Sir Jeffrey described as a mandate for his stance.
Speaking at the launch of the Trade NI report at Westminster on Tuesday, Mr Heaton-Harris said he wanted to see Stormont back “as soon as possible”.
Asked whether he had received any request from the DUP in terms of money around the resumption of Stormont, he said: “I’m yet to receive any ask from the DUP, but we’ve got talks ongoing this week and they’ll continue, we will get somewhere at some point.”
Asked whether there would be money available for a restored Stormont, Mr Heaton-Harris said it was imperative to get the Executive up and running first.
“I’ve asked a lot of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, who are delivering public services in a certain way at this point in time.
“I think we’ve seen that people want their politicians to get into Stormont and start making political choices about how money is spent in Northern Ireland, and that’s what we need to see.”
He replied simply “yeah”, when asked whether there was any meaningful engagement ongoing with the DUP.
“I don’t do timelines, and I’m afraid the one thing I have learned is that conversations are best done in a confidential manner … and I’m looking forward to continuing those conversations,” he said.
Speaking at the same event, Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said he believes the Windsor Framework is a “done deal” and a “good deal for Northern Ireland”.
He said if the DUP need some further reassurance, it has to be ensured that does not cause any difficulty elsewhere, and does not unpick agreements.
“Of course there is no excuse for the DUP to be outside the Executive and we need to see things restored instantly given the scale of crisis facing Northern Ireland,” he said.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood rejected Sir Jeffrey’s claim his party were given a mandate for their stance.
“I think it’s utter nonsense, what the people said very loudly last they sent a signal to the DUP to get back into government because they’re fed up with the fact with a quarter of our people are on a hospital waiting list, our economy’s not being maximised, the opportunities aren’t being taken up because we don’t even have a government, and now we’re seeing huge cuts to the most vulnerable because the DUP won’t go back into government,” he said.
“This is not sustainable any longer, I don’t know what else they think they’re going to get.”
Meanwhile, Mr Heaton-Harris said he had congratulated Sinn Fein on becoming the largest party in Northern Ireland at local government.
He declined to comment on his view as a member of the Conservative and Unionist party on that development.
“That’s a general question for unionism actually, I’m a great believer that unionism is stronger when it is positive and we need to be very positive about what the union can bring to everybody, all communities in Northern Ireland,” he said.
“I’m an English unionist, so I would struggle to define what it means for Northern Ireland unionism, but I just know the union is better and stronger when we are positive.”