Stormont talks: 'Deal agreement needed' before assembly recall

Julian Smith and Tanaiste Simon Coveney

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Tanaiste Simon Coveney and Secretary of State Julian Smith addressing the media at Stormont

The Northern Ireland Assembly will only be recalled if the political parties agree on a potential deal to restore power sharing, the speaker has said.

The British and Irish governments published the text of a draft deal on Thursday evening, following three years of political deadlock.

NI Secretary Julian Smith asked the speaker to arrange an urgent meeting of the assembly on Friday.

But that depends on when Robin Newton hears “positively” from the parties.

Mr Smith and Tánaiste (Irish Deputy Prime Minister) Simon Coveney made the announcement of a draft deal at a media conference at Stormont on Thursday evening.

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Media captionThe British and Irish governments have published the text of a draft deal aimed at restoring Stormont

If agreed, the deal, entitled New Decade, New Approach, could see the assembly reconvene on Friday. Thursday marked three years to the day since Stormont collapsed.

It is the speaker’s responsibility to ensure arrangements are in place for a sitting to facilitate the appointment of an executive.

An assembly spokesperson said: “It is not for the speaker to react to political speculation and he has been clear that whether or not the deadline of 13 January can be met is a matter entirely for parties.

“While the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has requested that the speaker call a sitting of the assembly, the process of doing so remains one for the speaker to undertake in consultation with the parties.”

The statement added: “The speed and timing of any sitting therefore depends entirely on when the speaker hears positively from the parties.”

Mr Smith said the deal will transform public services and restore public confidence in devolved government.

He asked all parties to support it, saying: “Now is decision time, there is something in this deal for everyone.”

The secretary of state said accepting the deal would also bring about the parties’ commitment to immediately ending ongoing industrial action by healthcare staff.

It includes pay parity, a new action plan on waiting times and delivering reforms on health and social care.

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The deal would bring about the parties’ commitment to ending ongoing industrial action by healthcare staff

Health workers across Northern Ireland have been staging industrial action in protest against pay and staffing levels which they say are “unsafe”.

Mr Coveney said the path that led to this point had taken longer than many people thought.

He said it was “based on the extensive discussions and collective work undertaken by the parties since May last year, following the awful murder of Lyra McKee”.

Ms McKee was murdered by the New IRA in April last year. The journalist was shot in the head while observing riots in Londonderry.

“The British and Irish governments, as well as all the party leaders, were left in no doubt by the wave of applause and the very public demonstration in St Anne’s Cathedral that we had been called out to get politics in Northern Ireland working again,” he said.

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Media caption‘Her murder brought us back to these talks’

He added: “I want you all to hear the words of Lyra McKee herself, the words she wrote in a book and never lived to publish. She said ‘Northern Ireland is a beautiful tragedy strangled by the chains of its past, it’s a place full of darkness and mysteries, but it’s also my home.'”

Mr Coveney urged politicians to “step up and fully represent their citizens”, adding: “Forget win or lose… this is a deal full of compromises.”

“There is no need, and no public patience, for more process and more discussions. It is time for political leadership and a collective commitment to making politics work for people,” he said.

Analysis by BBC News NI Economics Editor John Campbell

If the deal is done, the UK government is promising a large cash injection to tackle acute funding problems in Northern Ireland’s hospitals and schools.

The financial annex in the draft deal does not mention any specific figures.

But last year, the most senior official in the Department of Health said he would need somewhere between £700m and £1bn to tackle waiting lists, which are the worst in the UK.

So health service managers will have an expectation that a sum of a least that size will be on the way.

What’s in the draft deal?

Two key sticking points in the Stormont talks were around an Irish Language Act and the petition of concern.

The purpose of petition of concern is to protect one community from legislation that would favour another and a valid petition requires the signatures of 30 MLAs.

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Simon Coveney said NI politicians need to ‘step up and fully represent their citizens’

The draft deal says there is to be “meaningful reform” of the petition, which would be “reduced and returned to its intended purpose” and would “only be used in the most exceptional circumstances and as a last resort, having used every other mechanism”.

The proposed deal would also see legislation created for the appointment of both an Irish language commissioner and an Ulster Scots commissioner.

It also makes provision for a number of long-standing demands of environmentalists, including the idea that a new Programme for Government would see a separate climate change act for Northern Ireland – the only part of the UK without such legislation.

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The proposed deal could see the assembly reconvene on Friday

Up until now, Northern Ireland has been bound by and fed into targets set by wider UK legislation.

It proposes an independent environmental protection agency to hold government to account and to ensure compliance with environmental targets.

And there is a suggestion that the ill-fated RHI scheme, which helped collapse Stormont, would be shut down and replaced with different incentives to decarbonise heat.

Other commitments include:

  • Setting out a new action plan on waiting times
  • Creating 900 new nursing and midwifery undergraduate places
  • Police numbers increased to 7,500
  • New transparency measures for ministers
  • New rules for special advisers
  • Office of Identity and Cultural Expression set up

How have the parties reacted?

In a statement released after the press conference, DUP leader Arlene Foster said: “On balance, we believe there is a basis upon which the Assembly and Executive can be re-established in a fair and balanced way.”

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DUP leader Arlene Foster said it was ‘not a perfect deal’ but that ‘there will always need to be give and take’

The statement added: “This is not a perfect deal and there are elements within it which we recognise are the product of long negotiations and represent compromise outcomes. There will always need to be give and take.”

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald TD said her party was “studying the text and will give it careful consideration”.

“The Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle will meet tomorrow to fully assess it,” she added.

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Michael McHugh

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Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald said the party would meet on Friday to discuss the proposed deal

The Ulster Unionists said they would attend the sitting and consider the business put before them if the assembly is recalled on Friday.

Its leader, Steve Aiken, said: “We will consider this complex and far reaching document carefully and consult widely within our party before making any further comments.”

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