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Stormont return: After years of stalemate, suddenly a lot must be done quickly - so what comes next?

Donaldson could not delay on selling deal as opponents waited to pick it apart and public-sector workers sought pay rise

After two years of stalemate, suddenly it was all moving very quickly.

So quickly, in fact, that the North’s powersharing institutions could be up and running again by the weekend.

This is dependent on a timeline that sees the legislation that persuaded the DUP over the line published by the UK government on Wednesday and then passed by Thursday at the latest, which would allow the Assembly to be recalled on Friday or Saturday.

It may seem tight, but it is doable. The Executive parties are meeting on Tuesday, and the UK government and its official opposition are keen to get this over the line, so it should have a speedy passage through parliament.


As yet, the legislation has not been published, so most of what we know so far comes from the DUP.

According to the party leader Jeffrey Donaldson, speaking on BBC Radio Ulster on Tuesday morning, it comprises constitutional legislation “designed to affirm Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom” and changes to the UK Internal Markets Act to “grant us unfettered access to the UK internal market”.

There will also be practical arrangements: “removing all checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland and staying within the United Kingdom”.

Asked if it gets rid of the border within the Irish Sea, he replied with an emphatic “Yes, zero checks, zero customs paperwork on goods moving within the United Kingdom, that takes away the border within the UK between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.”

Donaldson, of course, has a deal to sell, so it is in his interests to talk it up. One wonders what the EU will make of this, given that the Windsor Framework reduced, but did not eliminate entirely, checks on agri-food products coming into Northern Ireland from Great Britain via the “green lane”.

If there has been one constant in all of this, it has been the EU’s refusal to reopen the Windsor Framework talks, so it will be interesting to see how Donaldson’s claim stacks up once the legislation is out there in black and white.

That said, his get-out clause is also out there. Again, from that BBC Radio Ulster interview: “My party is satisfied with the progress that we have made. Did we get everything we want? No. Will we continue to fight for further change? Absolutely.”

This was always going to be the way Donaldson would have to sell the deal to his party. It has long been clear, even to Donaldson himself, the DUP would not get everything it wanted, and at some point, it would have to cut its losses and head back in, ideally wrapped in the cover given it by the changes of the Windsor Framework and the UK government’s legislation.

Hence the need for speed; the longer the delay, the greater the likelihood it will be picked apart by his opponents.

In recent weeks the story of the DUP’s return has been played out through leaks, briefings and counter-briefings to the media from those who are utterly opposed to a return to Stormont. Its lesson is that it is the enemies within, not without, that Donaldson needs to be most concerned about.

That drama reached its climax during Monday night’s meeting of the party executive. Though shrouded in secrecy, it was live-tweeted on social media by loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson, clearly being fed information from inside the room. This underlines the extent of the battle Donaldson is now facing to keep his party united.

A vote was taken. The result was “decisive”, says Donaldson, though the breakdown of the vote has not been released. In the days, weeks and months ahead, these dissenting voices will be a constant thorn in his side.

There is much work now to be done. Once a Speaker is elected, Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin vice-president, can take up her role as First Minister, as per the result of the 2022 Assembly election, and the first time in the history of Northern Ireland it has been held by a nationalist.

One to watch is whether Donaldson will sit as Deputy First Minister, or whether he will return to the green benches of the House of Commons – he is MP for Lagan Valley – and install a colleague in his place. The name mooted there is Emma Little-Pengelly.

Next will come the business of picking ministries – distributed between the four Executive parties on the basis of the d’Hondt system – and then it will be down to business.

Top of the list will be to set a budget and to get down to distributing the funds allocated by the UK government, but a word of warning: £3.3bn sounds a lot, but this is still a challenging financial climate, and Northern Ireland is suffering from years of underinvestment which has seen, to pick just two areas, waiting lists spiral and infrastructure problems go unrepaired. Just ask anyone about the potholes on the North’s roads.

What most people will be watching for is the settlement of the public sector pay dispute, which has led to widespread strikes in Northern Ireland and, earlier this month, the largest mass industrial action in 50 years.

Money to address this is part of that £3.3bn deal. The reaction of trade union body Ictu was that the Northern Secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, “must now deliver on his promise and unlock the financial package... talks between trade unions and public sector employers must begin immediately so workers can reap the rewards of their principles resistance to these shameful political games.”

Approximately 170,000 public sector workers are now looking forward to their pay rise. This also must be delivered quickly.

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