Northern Ireland has been without an Executive or fully functioning Assembly since the resignation of former First Minister, Paul Givan, nearly two years ago.
At the time, the DUP resigned from the First Minister post in protest over the Northern Ireland Protocol following months of disagreement about the implementation of Brexit checks and the potential ‘Irish Sea Border’ between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
It now appears that sufficient progress has been made in talks between the DUP and the UK government, that devolution will be restored, and that the Assembly will be recalled on Saturday 3rd February with Ministers appointed soon after.
The Windsor Framework
On 27 February 2023 the UK Government and EU agreed the Windsor Framework, a revised agreement which aimed to improve the Protocol by introducing green and red lanes for trade and a series of measures covering customs, agri-food, medicines, and new mechanisms for the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The past year has seen intense talks between the DUP and UK Government as efforts were made to restore Stormont. Early on Tuesday, DUP Leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP indicated that his party has now backed a deal with the UK Government over restoring devolution.
The UK Government’s Command Paper ‘Safeguarding the Union’ has just been published and it is still being scrutinised, but we do know that the deal between the DUP and UK Government is subject to the UK Government implementing a series of measures and amending legislation at Westminster.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP indicated that the DUP hadn’t achieved everything they wanted, but that they were now content to push for further change from within the institutions – subject to the legislation passing through the Commons and House of Lords.
During a press conference Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP stated: “On checks, on goods, moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and staying within the UK there will no longer be physical checks, identity checks, save where, as is normal in any part of the UK there is a suspicion of smuggling, of criminal activity; that is the same for every part of the United Kingdom. On customs paperwork, customs declarations, supplementary declarations, will be gone and therefore we believe this represents a significant change.”
The DUP leader also stated that legislative amendments will be brought forward to restore the purpose of Article 6 of the Acts of Union and affirm Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market. At this point it is unclear whether there will be any requirements at an EU level, and whether the EU and UK Government will revise the legal text agreed in the Windsor Framework.
- The deal will be scrutinised now it has been published by the UK Government.
- Potential legislation to be published tomorrow and potentially passed in Parliament tomorrow [Thursday] via accelerated passage.
- Recall of the NI Assembly would follow (potentially Friday or Saturday).
- The first agenda item for the new Assembly will be to nominate a Speaker which requires cross-community support.
- This will be followed by the nomination of new First Minister and deputy First Minister by Sinn Féin and the DUP respectively.
- Nomination of the nine Departmental Ministers – the nomination of all Ministers apart from the Justice portfolio will be decided via d’Hondt with the Department of Justice requiring a cross-community vote.
- Sinn Féin will be entitled to three Departments in addition to its two Ministers in the Executive Office, the DUP will be entitled to two Departments along with its two Ministers in the Executive Office and the Alliance Party is also entitled to two Departments. The Ulster Unionist Party is also entitled to one Department in the following order:
🟩 Sinn Féin get picks 1, 3 & 6.
🟧 DUP get picks 2 & 4
🟨 APNI get pick 7, plus Justice. They lose pick 3.
🟦 UUP get pick 5.
- The SDLP has not earned enough seats to join the Executive and so will form the Opposition. Should the UUP join them, the DUP get an extra seat and the Alliance Party gets an earlier choice.
- Sinn Féin has publicly indicated Conor Murphy MLA would take Economy, with the DUP expected to consider Finance and possibly Health. It is also anticipated at this stage Alliance would opt for Education and continue to hold Justice. However, this is very fluid and could easily change.
- Following these appointments, Ministers will take up their new roles and work through an extensive first day brief alongside departmental officials.
- The Business Committee within the NI Assembly will work in parallel to form Statutory Committees – which allow MLAs to advise and scrutinise the work of Ministers.
- As part of the deal, the UK Government has committed to providing Northern Ireland Departments with an additional £3.3 billion financial package:
- £600m to address public sector pay claims.
- c. £560m to address overspend in the current financial year.
- A further £1.125bn is allocated to a ‘stabilising fund’ to help strained public services.
- Deferring a Stormont budget overspend of £559m for two years, which will then be written off when a returning Executive publishes and implements a fiscal sustainability plan.
- £49m is to tackle hospital waiting lists and fund the PSNI response to the recent data breach.
- The creation of an enhanced investment zone worth £150m.
- A dedicated fund of more than £600m for a transformation plan, with at least £150m ringfenced for transformation projects.
- An increase of Northern Ireland’s annual capital borrowing limit over five years, worth an extra £135m by 2028/29.
- There is no commitment this funding will be recurrent.
- There is the potential to secure a new “fiscal floor” which increases the finance allocated to Northern Ireland’s block grant, but this is contingent on any incoming Executive identifying additional revenue raising opportunities, e.g., higher rates or introducing water charges.
- The newly formed Executive will be responsible for setting the new Programme for Government which will run until the current Assembly term ends in May 2027.
- Once Committees are formed, MLAs will be allocated new briefs, and this presents an opportunity to re-engage with existing MLAs and policy staff and hold introductory briefings with MLAs who have a new brief or are completely new to the Assembly.
- The Executive will also start to introduce new legislation and members will be willing to receive briefings to inform their speeches in the Chamber and will also be seeking opportunities to ask Assembly Questions, or table debates.
- It will also be important to monitor activity in the Assembly to assess recurring trends and anticipate issues that are coming down the line in various sectors and to understand Ministerial priorities in the coming weeks and months.