11 December 2023

Northern Ireland ‘needs long term solutions not dangled baubles’

11 December 2023

Northern Ireland needs long-term solutions and not “dangled baubles”, Alliance leader Naomi Long has warned Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris.

The five main Stormont parties took part in round-table talks with Mr Heaton-Harris at Hillsborough Castle to discuss public finances.

The parties were united in saying a plan, which includes cash as well as revenue raisers, from the Government does not go far enough.

There was also pressure on the DUP to re-enter Stormont after remaining out of government for more than a year and a half as part of its protest action to raise unionist concerns at post-Brexit trading arrangements.

Sinn Fein’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill has said that the financial package “does not touch the surface” of what is needed in Northern Ireland.

Asked if the package was enough, Ms O’Neill said: “Absolutely not.

“What is on the table today does not even touch the surface of what is required to have good properly funded public services.

“We have a battle, but it is a battle the parties must fight together and take this right to the British Government. If the Executive is going to be successful then we need to have properly funded public services.”

Ms O’Neill also said that there needed to be a decision by the DUP on a return to Stormont by Wednesday.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson welcomed what they heard on Monday as a “first step”.

“I think it puts on the table an offer that begins to address some of the issues that are at the heart of the shortfall in our budgetary arrangements,” he said.

“Does it go far enough? No. Is more work required? Yes it is.”

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long claimed “baubles” were dangled at political parties, instead of long-term solutions.

“For us this is not about a short-term fix, it is not about dangling baubles at us before Christmas and getting everybody to rush back and say that this will be resolved immediately,” she said.

“The DUP have had 18 months to mull over the minutiae of the Windsor Framework and the changes they want to it. This is much more important in terms of Northern Ireland’s long term sustainability and so we need to ensure that as much detail and attention is paid to the detail of this deal and to the finances around this deal as has been paid to any other part of it.”

Ms Long also emphasised the importance of stability at Stormont: “I do not want this to become an annual event where we stand here Christmas by Christmas and talk about how to restore institutions that have fallen”.

“I think people generally out there feel enough is enough. We need our institutions restored as soon as possible and reformed so they don’t collapse again. that’s our bottom line and we made that very clear in the room today.”

Meanwhile Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie said there were “eye-watering figures” in a financial package being offered by Government, but said the long-term plan was not clear.

“When you look at it initially it is quite attractive, but you have to look in the long-term,” he said.

“We are not quite sure, we have to do a lot more looking through it and then talking to people and negotiating around it.

“There are quite eye-watering figures being talked about now.”

He added: “The problem is what happens next year, the year after and it is not quite clear how we are going to deal with that.

“We can do the pay deals for our nurses, our teachers, our police now, but we don’t know if we’ll be able to do it in 12 months’ time.

“The other thing that is quite clear, if there is no Executive then there is no pay deal whatsoever.”

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood pressed Sir Jeffrey to lead the DUP back into devolved government.

“As we know there’s a huge black hole in the public finances in Northern Ireland. We have people behind us who are frontline workers who have to go out and strike in the cold to be paid properly. And we’ve hundreds of thousands of people – a quarter of our population – on health waiting lists. That’s a lot of work to be getting on with,” he said.

“The first thing that has to happen is that Jeffrey Donaldson has to make a decision to get back into Government.

“We want to be supportive around that, we want to be constructive around that, but in terms of the financial conversation, that will obviously be a conversation that the Executive parties will have to have with the Government.”

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