Stormont: Party leaders discuss priorities for new executive

  • Written by Jane McCormack
  • BBC News NI political correspondent

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Power-sharing collapsed in February 2022 when Paul Givhan resigned as Prime Minister

Party leaders and officials entitled to form an executive have met to discuss priorities for the first day of the new government in Northern Ireland.

Sinn Féin, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the Alliance Party and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) held talks at Stormont Castle on Friday afternoon.

The UUP has confirmed that it will take on a role in the executive, rather than entering formal opposition.

The Northern Ireland Assembly will meet at 1:00 GMT on Saturday.

Its return marks two years since the collapse of power.

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DUP leader Sir Geoffrey Donaldson (right) says he is looking forward to the Assembly meeting tomorrow

The DUP made the decision on Tuesday to end its boycott of Stormont after agreeing a new deal with the government on post-Brexit trade rules.

DUP leader Sir Geoffrey Donaldson said his party would end its boycott, after MPs passed legislation on a new deal on post-Brexit trade rules.

Sir Geoffrey said Friday's meeting focused on the upcoming priorities for the future executive.

“It's important… that we have a real sense of what those priorities are for everyone in Northern Ireland,” he said.

“We look forward to the Assembly meeting tomorrow, examining the formalities, and restoring powers.”

What happens on Saturday?

The first thing MLAs should do when they enter the General Assembly hall is to elect a new President – and this should happen before anything else.

Once the Speaker of Parliament is elected, the parties entitled to jointly lead the Executive – the decision-making and policy-making body in Northern Ireland – will submit their nominations.

For the first time, Sinn Féin will nominate a First Minister as it won the largest number of seats in the Assembly elections scheduled for May 2022.

The DUP, as the largest unionist party, will nominate a deputy first minister for the first time – and Emma Little Pengelly is widely expected to be nominated, but the DUP refused on Friday to confirm this.

Although the posts of First Minister and Deputy First Minister are joint offices and have equal powers, Michelle O'Neill becoming Northern Ireland's first ever Republican First Minister will represent a symbolic moment.

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Michelle O'Neill is tipped to become First Minister

Ahead of Saturday's Assembly session, there was also speculation about which divisions the Stormont parties would take.

The coalition did not speak to the media after the party leaders' meeting on Friday, but its leader Naomi Long was previously Justice Secretary in Stormont's government.

The decision is made on the basis of a cross-community vote rather than the D'Hondt mechanism, which determines how many of the other seven parties in Stormont are eligible to receive.

The coalition party has not yet confirmed whether it will enter the government or the opposition.

Andrew Muir, of the Alliance Party, told BBC News' The View: “There are benefits to joining the opposition, but there are also significant benefits to joining the government.

Who will be the opposition at Stormont?

The Social Democratic Action Party (SDLP), the fifth largest party with eight members in the council, is not eligible to be part of the next executive and will instead go to the opposition.

Speaking on the BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme, SDLP assembly member Matthew O'Toole said the opposition would hold the parties in the executive to account and make the institutions “work effectively for the people of Northern Ireland”.

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The SDLP is not eligible to be part of the next executive and will instead go into opposition with Matthew O'Toole vying for the role of leader.

What's in the deal?

This will reduce inspections and paperwork on goods moving from the rest of the UK to Northern Ireland.

This means there will no longer be “routine” checks on Great Britain goods being sent to Northern Ireland with the intention of remaining there.

These changes include the maximum flexibility permitted under a previous agreement between the EU and the UK which it is understood would be acceptable to the EU.

The Democratic Unionist Party had demanded changes to the way goods were traded between Northern Ireland and Great Britain in order to end the Stormont impasse.

Any return of a power-sharing executive at Stormont would see the UK Treasury release a £3.3bn package that would help prop up Northern Ireland's struggling public services.

More funding is needed to address wage disputes

“What the UK government is offering as part of the package is to cover public sector payroll compensation for just one year,” he said.

The DUP leader said this equated to around £650m, but Northern Ireland did not currently have “the capacity for the next two years and the government knows this needs to be resolved”.

Speaking after the party meeting on Friday, Sir Geoffrey said: “You won't have to wait long to see the new executive up and running, making those priorities clear to the Treasury and pressing them to get the additional funding needed,” he added after Friday's meeting.

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A group of unionists, including Jim Allister (right) and campaigner Jimmy Bryson, have sought a legal opinion on the deal

On Friday, a group of unionists, including traditional unionist voice leader Jim Allister and campaigner Jamie Bryson, published a legal opinion by former Northern Ireland Attorney-General John Larkin KC.

Mr Allister said Mr Larkin concluded that “there is nothing here that reinstates section 6 of the Union Act, it remains outstanding – and the consequences of that are enormous”.

He added: “We shared many platforms with Jeffrey Donaldson. In the face of the volatility that accompanied this deal, we wanted to divest it and evaluate the legal facts.”

Mr Allister questioned the legal advice and Sir Geoffrey claimed he said his deal removed the Irish Sea border and restored Northern Ireland's position within the UK's internal market.

Sir Geoffrey has in recent days berated his unionist rivals, accusing them of offering “nothing” when it comes to changing the Northern Ireland Protocol.

“Sir Geoffrey is the one who took on this mission and he has failed, and there is no point in trying to get away from it,” Alistair said.

Sir Geoffrey told reporters on Friday that he “fundamentally disagreed” with Mr Larkin's legal opinion.

“Jim Allister – is this the best he can do?” he added.

“What I brought was change. I stood on stage with Jim Allister and he talked a lot, he shouted a lot, but he had nothing to show for his actions.”

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