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What Must Still Happen To Restore Northern Ireland Power Sharing

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson leaving his party's HQ on Monday night (Alamy)

5 min read

Northern Ireland's political institutions are on the cusp of being restored after two years dormant, but there is some nervousness within UK Government about the days ahead.

In the early hours of Tuesday morning, the breakthrough that some people thought might never happen finally materialised when Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), announced that he had secured the approval he needed to take his party back into the region's power sharing government. 

Following meetings in Belfast today, the UK Government will publish details of its multi-part deal with the DUP on Wednesday in the form of legal text and an explanatory command paper.

PoliticsHome understands that ministers believe they can implement the necessary legislation within days, paving the way for Stormont to return as soon as the end of this week, assuming there are no hitches in the meantime. 

But while last night's announcement represented a major step towards the return of power sharing, in Government there is still some nervousness about the days ahead as Donaldson and ministers in Westminster prepare for the final push to get their deal over the line.

Even the otherwise triumphant early hours press conference saw the MP for Lagan Valley address expectant media who were already on a knife-edge, following an extraordinary, hours-long meeting during which his presentation to DUP members about the details of the deal with the UK Government was apparently leaked to ultra loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson. 

The leak sparked fury and there were fears about how the embarrassment would affect Donaldson's bid to take his party back into power sharing. That his planned statement to the press ended up being more than two hours late did little to quell the nerves.

However, Donaldson eventually emerged to deliver the news that the DUP executive had endorsed the party's deal with Rishi Sunak's UK Government that had been many months in the making. 

The DUP, the second biggest political party in Northern Ireland after Sinn Fein, collapsed power sharing in early 2022 out of protest against post-Brexit trading arrangements for trade with Great Britain. The party said these arrangements, first negotiated by ex-prime minister Boris Johnson, had fundamentally undermined Northern Ireland's place in the UK, and since then has been in discussions with the UK Government about changes to them.

Now there is hope on both sides of the Irish Sea that Stormont might return as soon as this week, potentially on Saturday — exactly two years to the day when the DUP withdrew its then-first minister Paul Givan from the Executive, collapsing power sharing.

"I look forward very much to the restoration of the institutions in Stormont as soon as possible," Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton Harris told reporters in Westminster on Tuesday.

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

Heaton Harris will this afternoon fly to Belfast, where the DUP and other Northern Irish political parties are meeting to discuss the details of Stormont's likely return.

Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill, who is on the brink of becoming Northern Ireland's first ever nationalist first minister after her party won the region's most recent Assembly elections, described the moment as a "day of optimism".

Mary Lou MacDonald, Sinn Fein president and leader in the Republic of Ireland, said: "This has been a long time coming but we're very pleased that we're at this juncture."

The DUP members who approved the deal with Westminster on Monday night are yet to see the legal text, and there is some concern in Whitehall that their support may fall away if they deem that what is published on Wednesday does not match what they were told by Donaldson during the last week of crunch meetings.

"There are a few more hurdles before they actually go in," a Whitehall source told PoliticsHome.

While specific details of the agreement are yet to be confirmed, it is set to include new legislation to further affirm Northern Ireland's place in the UK. It will also promise a significant reduction in checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland via the so-called "green lane", in addition to measures to ensure that goods heading in the other direction never face trade barriers, even if Great Britain decides to diverge from European Union rules in the future.

Stormont will also be given a financial package worth £3.3bn to spend once it is back up-and-running. A significant chunk of this will go towards pay rises for public sector workers in Northern Ireland.

As well as keeping the DUP on side, the UK Government is also keen to reassure the EU that what it has agreed with the unionist party in a bid to restore power sharing in Northern Ireland does not infringe on the Windsor framework treaty agreed earlier this year. 

A spokesperson for the European Commission this morning said the EU would not "provide a running commentary" on the UK Government's negotiations with the DUP prior to details of what has been agreed being published on Wednesday.

The spokesperson continued: "More broadly, and as we've said before, we expect the UK Government to fulfil its obligations under the [Windsor] framework as it has been doing."

PoliticsHome understands that the UK Government has been in close contact with the EU about its talks with the DUP leading up to this week's crunch point.

Indeed, this afternoon the two sides announced through its post-Brexit Joint Committee that they had agreed to expand the number of goods entering Northern Ireland classed as "low risk" — a development which indicates co-ordination between London and Brussels, as well as what the UK Government and Donaldson will see as a significant win in regards to ensuring the free flow of trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The Prime Minister's official spokesperson this morning confirmed that what has been agreed with the DUP would not require sign-off with Brussels before being implemented. 

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