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Northern Ireland Talks Update

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1.     State of Play Now

The Secretary of State effectively told the DUP to put up or shut up on a return to Stormont following negotiations to restore the institutions, when he stunned Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and his party by telling them that the talks had concluded and that it was time for a decision. The Tory Minister further piled pressure on Donaldson by telling waiting journalists that the enhanced financial package of £3.3bn to address the challenges that have beset Northern Ireland’s public finances, was the UK government’s final financial offer and that it could only be accessed through a restored Executive.

In a classic case of ‘he said, she said’…. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and the DUP insisted that from their perspective the talks were not concluded, stating, “We are very clear, there is not yet agreement finalised on the issues of substance (on the Windsor Framework), and we will continue to engage with the Government to get to the point where that agreement is reached.”

With the Prime Minister having set time aside in his busy schedule to fly to Northern Ireland on Monday to celebrate a deal, it was all a bit of an embarrassment not least for Heaton-Harris with DUP party officers being the Christmas party poopers following their decision to stall the process over the weekend.

Sinn Féin’s decision to send party advisors (former SPADs) and not elected representatives to meetings on Monday was a clear indication that no deal was imminent.

The latest twist in this long running process follows questions of whether the DUP continue to be spooked by opponents, both elected and non-elected, with a lingering concern amongst commentators that the unionist tail continues to wag the dog, with ‘Stop DUP sellout’ posters being the latest reminder of the issues they face.

While, arguably, as decisive as he has been since he took office, Chris Heaton-Harris has kept the lines of communication open for the DUP stating that he will be available to provide any clarity required, going as far as to say that he will make himself available throughout the Christmas period.

2.     What was on offer?

While the funding package was confirmed yesterday, the contents of Windsor Framework assurance have not.

And it is those assurances on the Windsor Framework that are the primary area of concern for the DUP and the party’s leadership. Elements of this deal are believed to include:

·        Amended legislation from Westminster on the UK Internal Markets Act

·        An East West Council, to foster and build relationships;

·        Bodies to strengthen NI-GB business connectivity, potentially inclusive of funding;

·        Further UK-EU agreements around the Windsor Framework to strengthen East West trade and relationships.

 

3.     What is the enhanced financial package?

Included in the enhanced fiscal package was an offer to write off Stormont’s overspend if devolution returns and the Executive produces a fiscal sustainability plan. The overspend over the last two financial years has amounted to almost £560m.

The financial package also included £584m to address public sector pay issues and "reasonably and generously" responds to the Northern Ireland parties' concerns. There will also be £34m for tackling hospital waiting lists and £15m to help the Police Service of Northern Ireland with the impact of a major data breach.

 A proposed new ‘fiscal floor’ would also guarantee that per head public funding in NI does not fall below 124% of per head funding in England a change to the Barnett Formula that currently decides NI spending. The parties had asked for a higher floor and for it to be backdated to the start of the most recent spending review period in 2021 but this has been resisted by government who prefer to make £1.125bn of stabilisation funding available.

 

4.     What about the strikes and potential next steps?

All this comes against the backdrop of increased unrest among public sector workers and plans for one of the largest walk outs across the public sector in years, on January 18th.

The Secretary of State was clear, while he set out the package of support, there would be no succour for those struggling the most without a return to the Executive, with his position remaining that locally elected representatives need to allocate the £3.3bn bounty. While he has been accused of using the plight of public sector workers as pawns to apply pressure on the DUP, there can be no doubt that the finger of blame will be also firmly be pointed by some at the DUPs lack of movement.

The one certainty out of this week’s proceedings is that there is no certainty on the timeline of a return of the Executive. The DUP will view the SoS stance as making it more difficult for them to convince their grassroots of the progress that has been made with the Windsor Framework negotiations, which has been further exacerbated by their own statement that the process is not complete.

Is it checkmate or stalemate? Who knows, even the most informed in this process are beyond predictions. One senses much will come down to Heaton-Harris’ resolve, the growing influence of the downtrodden workers and the courage and resolve of Sir Jeffrey. With time and patience running out, across many quarters, one hopes that the Tory MP isn’t pondering his next move come mid-January.  

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