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15 January 2024

‘Patience running out with Northern Ireland’ – Naomi Long

15 January 2024

The Alliance Party leader has warned that patience with Northern Ireland is “running out” in London as she urged the DUP to return to devolved government.

The Stormont Assembly has been effectively collapsed for almost two years while the DUP refuses to take part while unionist concerns on post-Brexit trading arrangements remain.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson says his party remains in talks with government on the matter.

The largest Stormont parties met with Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris on Monday days ahead of a strike planned by public sector workers over pay.

Thursday also marks the deadline for Mr Heaton-Harris to call fresh Assembly elections if the institutions are still not functioning.

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long has appealed once again for the DUP to return to powersharing, but added that her pleas may fall on “deaf ears”.

She said that the £3.3 billion on offer from the UK Government was not something to be “sniffed at” and said there was “no suggestion from Treasury” that the money would still be available if there was no return to powersharing.

She also warned that patience with Northern Ireland in London is “running out”.

Last week the chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee Sir Robert Buckland urged the DUP to show leadership, suggesting “there isn’t a perfect solution for them”.

Sir Robert also indicated that “old-style direct rule of the past” from London was off the table if devolved government could not be resurrected.

Ms Long said: “Robert Buckland is not an outlier when it comes to the views he expressed last week in terms of the future of Northern Ireland.

“Robert Buckland is a former member of government and a senior member of the Conservative Party, and I think people need to listen very carefully to what he said.

“Patience with Northern Ireland and with the DUP in particular at Westminster has all but expired, and I think the time has now come for us to take control of our own situation, start to make the difficult choices that will be required of all of us in government and start to do it now for the sake of the people that we represent.”

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood urged the UK government to release funding to make a pay award to public sector workers ahead of Thursday’s strike.

He said he believes it is “scandalous we’re still at this point” while the Stormont Assembly remains collapsed amid DUP protest action over post-Brexit trading arrangements, adding people were in a “twilight zone waiting for the DUP to make a decision”.

“The first thing that I said to the Secretary of State was, ‘we now know you have the money so let’s get (it) spent’,” he said.

“Let’s avoid the strike on Thursday.

“The people who are forced to go out and strike and give up a day’s pay, have nothing to do with this political gamesmanship that’s going on.

“They’re just ordinary workers who we ask to do the most difficult jobs in society who are getting underpaid by any standard, and they should be entitled to that money and the Secretary of State should get on and pay them.

“He has said that he doesn’t have a legal power but as we all know, the legal power will be hard to find, and the British government could bring in a law tomorrow to get these people paid.

“I think they should get on with it.”

Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie said there had been “absolutely no movement” as he left his meeting with Mr Heaton-Harris.

“Nothing has changed, so 2023 ended with no deal, 2024 has started with no deal,” he said.

He said they asked to “decouple the public sector pay money away from the negotiations” before the public sector workers’ strike on Thursday.

But he said Mr Heaton-Harris “pretty much says he can’t do that or won’t do that”.

“But the bottom line is, he’s not going to do that,” he said.

“So we will go into strikes and then we will see where we get to next week.

“Depressing in many ways, I guess, but the mood music is changing, and the geopolitical things going on in the world are overtaking what’s happening here in Northern Ireland and we’re not going to move forward.”

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