Northern Ireland government reboot in sight as DUP accepts post-Brexit deal

Chris Heaton-Harris says Westminster will deliver on its end of agreement to restore power-sharing

Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson made his announcement after a five-hour meeting with his party executive. Getty Images
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The Democratic Unionist Party has agreed to return to power-sharing in Northern Ireland after backing a British government deal aimed at addressing its concerns over post-Brexit trade barriers.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said he had secured the “decisive” backing of the 130-strong party executive to drop the blockade on devolution after Westminster has implemented the legislative assurances and other measures it has offered his party.

However, support for the deal is not unanimous within the DUP and several senior figures remain fiercely opposed to the proposed agreement to restore power-sharing.

Mr Donaldson made his announcement after a five-hour meeting with his party executive late on Monday.

Asked about potential dissent within the party, Mr Donaldson said: “I am confident that all members of the party will accept what was a decisive move by the party executive this evening.”

The DUP leader has faced pressure from other parties and the British government to end its two-year Stormont blockade, while simultaneously dealing with criticism from some unionists unhappy with the prospect of returning to power-sharing institutions.

Last week, Mr Donaldson told MPs that he had been personally threatened for his efforts to negotiate a deal to restore the Northern Irish Assembly. His party confirmed the police had been informed.

The British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris, welcomed the announcement and promised that Westminster would deliver on its end of the deal.

Sir Jeffrey told a press conference at the Hinch Distillery in Ballynahinch that the package, which he said would be published by the government in due course, safeguarded Northern Ireland's place in the Union and restored its place within the UK internal market.

“It will remove checks for goods moving within the UK and remaining in Northern Ireland and will end Northern Ireland automatically following future EU laws,” he said.

“There will be legislation to provide new legal and practical protections for the Acts of Union and which guarantees unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the rest of the United Kingdom.

“In the coming days, in addition to the publication of the details of the new package of proposals, the UK Government will be required to deliver on the legislative commitments they have made to us.”

Sir Jeffrey said he had also secured cross-party support for the proposals at Westminster.

“Therefore, regardless of who forms the next UK government, these agreed measures will be taken forward beyond the forthcoming general election,” he said.

Around 50 loyalist and unionist protesters assembled outside Monday night's meeting at the Larchfield estate in Co Down, many carrying posters and banners warning against a DUP “sell-out”.

Some shouted at DUP members as they drove into the grounds of the venue.

The DUP has been using a veto to block Stormont's devolved institutions in protest against post-Brexit arrangements that have created trade barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland for two years.

It has been involved in protracted talks with the British government to secure concessions on the arrangements and address its concerns about trade and sovereignty.

Sir Jeffrey insisted he had secured sufficient party backing to initiate a sequence of events that would result in Stormont's return.

“The officers, Assembly group, parliamentary group and the central executive of the Democratic Unionist Party have now been briefed and considered all aspects of our negotiations between the UK Government and the DUP,” he said.

“I am pleased to report that the party executive has now endorsed the proposals that I have put to them.”

Unionist critics of Sir Jeffrey's move, both inside and outside the DUP, believe the Stormont boycott should only end once all economic barriers created by Brexit's Northern Ireland Protocol, and the subsequent Windsor Framework, are removed.

While the deal being offered by the Government will seek to reduce red tape and offer additional measures aimed at strengthening GB-NI ties, they will not result in the axing of the EU and UK's jointly agreed protocol and framework.

Mr Heaton-Harris hailed what he described as a “welcome and significant step” by the DUP.

“I am grateful to Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and colleagues for the constructive dialogue over the past months and to the other political parties in Northern Ireland for the patience they have shown during this time,” he said.

“I am pleased that the DUP have agreed to accept the package of measures that the UK Government has put forward and as a result they are ready to return to the Northern Ireland Assembly and nominate representatives to the Northern Ireland Executive.

“Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said this is subject to the binding commitments between the Democratic Unionist Party and the UK Government – I can confirm that we will stick to this agreement.

“I now believe that all the conditions are in place for the Assembly to return, the parties entitled to form an executive are meeting tomorrow to discuss these matters and I hope to be able to finalise this deal with the political parties as soon as possible.”

Sinn Fein would be in line to take the First Minister's job in any restored ministerial executive in Belfast.

Party president Mary Lou McDonald said she was optimistic Stormont could return before the next legislative deadline for forming an administration on February 8.

“I am optimistic having heard Jeffrey Donaldson's public declaration that we will see the northern institutions back up and running before the February 8 deadline with a fully functioning Assembly and Executive and north-south bodies,” she said.

“Sinn Fein will now engage with the parties and both governments to ensure we now all press on without delay.

“It is vital there is political stability to address the scale of the crisis across our public services.

“Let's now focus minds on the job at hand and to the solutions required to support workers and families who want and deserve functioning government.”

Updated: January 30, 2024, 11:42 AM