Northern Ireland: Return to power sharing in sight as DUP agrees deal

Northern Ireland Executive is set to return once Westminster government passes legislation
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson speaks at today's early-morning hours press conference. Photo: AP Photo/Peter Morrison

By Adam Payne

30 Jan 2024

The Democratic Unionist Party has agreed to return to power sharing in Northern Ireland after a post-Brexit boycott lasting nearly two years.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson announced in the early hours of this morning that his party was willing to rejoin the region's political institutions, once Rishi Sunak's UK government implements new legislation – which could take place in a matter of days.

The agreement paves the way for the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive. Civil servants have been effectively running the country without the guidance of ministers since early 2022, and have faced significant financial pressures in that time under the budget set by Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris.

The deal will give departments acccess to a £3.3bn financial package the Westminster government put forward in December in the hope of upping the presssure on the DUP to return to the table. The figure includes £584m to fund pay rises for civil servants and other public sector workers – funds which unions have been urging the government to release regardless of the outcome of negotiations.

Disputes over pay in several areas of the public sector, including the civil service, led to strike action that brought Northern Ireland to a standstill earlier this month.

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 gaovernment about changes to them.

Speaking to the media in Belfast shortly after midnight on Monday, Donaldson confirmed that after many months talks with Sunak's government to address the DUP's concerns, his party had finally agreed to accept their offer.

"I am pleased to report that the party has now endorsed the proposals that I have put to them," said Donaldson, the MP for Lagan Valley.

"The party has concluded that subject to the binding commitments between the DUP and the UK government be fully and faithfully delivered as agreed, including the tabling and passing of new legislative measures in parliament, and final agreement on the timetable, the package of measures in totality does provide a basis for our party to nominate members to the Northern Ireland Executive, thus seeing the restoration of the locally-elected institutions."

Heaton-Harris said in a statement in the early hours of this morning that it was a "welcome and significant step" and that the government in Westminster would move to implement its deal with the DUP as agreed.

“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."

Heaton Harris said that the DUP and Northern Ireland's other political parties would meet on Tuesday to discuss the process of getting the region's institutions back up-and-running.

"I hope to be able to finalise this deal with the political parties as soon as possible," said the Cabinet minister in his statment.

It is understood that the UK government is preparing to implement the agreed legislation in a matter of days, paving the way for Stormont to return potentially as soon early next week. 

The Sunak administration has agreed to further protect Northern Ireland's place in the UK internal market through new legislative measures and schemes including an east-west trade council, along with the £3.3bn package.

Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill will serve as the first nationalist first minister in Northern Ireland's history once power sharing is restored. Donaldson this morning refused to disclose who he planned to nominate from the DUP to serve as deputy first minister, but is believed to favour Member of the Legislative Assembly Emma Little-Pengelly.

Conservative MP Julian Smith, a former Northern Ireland secretary, posted on X, the social media website formerly known as Twitter: "Today marks an exciting new dawn for Northern Ireland – a day of hope and excitement for this unique part of our country."

Hilary Benn, Labour's shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland, said: "This is good news, above all, for the people of Northern Ireland who have been without their government for almost two years. The task now will be for all of us to support the new power-sharing executive as it addresses the many challenges and opportunities that lie ahead."

Donaldson's press conference in the early hours of Tuesday morning concluded what was an eventful evening in Belfast, where around 130 DUP executives had gathered to be briefed by the party leader on the details of his agreement with the UK government.

Jamie Bryson, an ultra-loyalist blogger who is vehemently opposed to the deal on the table, apparently live tweeted the meeting as it was taking place, prompting fury and confusion in the room. The venue was also supposed to be confidential, but this too was leaked prior to the meeting getting underway.

Speaking in his press conference afterwards, Donaldson said the word in "betrayal" was used in last night's meeting to describe whoever was leaking details to Bryson.

Adam Payne is political editor at CSW's sister title PoliticsHome where a version of this story first appeared

Read the most recent articles written by Adam Payne - Sunak announces general election on 4 July

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