Stormont: Assembly to sit on Saturday as DUP boycott ends

The Northern Ireland Assembly is to sit on Saturday after the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) ended its boycott of the power-sharing institutions.

The DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson wrote to the Speaker following the passage of legislation in the House of Commons on Thursday.

The legislation will mean no routine checks on British goods being sold to consumers in Northern Ireland.

Saturday marks two years to the day since the DUP collapsed the executive.

The party's boycott was in protest over trade arrangements after Brexit.

It had demanded changes to the way goods are traded between Northern Ireland and Great Britain in order for it to end its Stormont standoff.

On Thursday evening, Speaker Alex Maskey wrote to all assembly members, summoning them to a sitting at 13:00 GMT on Saturday.

Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris said he was delighted that the DUP have "taken this next step to work with the other Northern Ireland parties to recall the assembly".

He added: "I look forward to working with the new first minister, deputy first minister, and all the ministers in a returned Northern Ireland Executive, alongside Northern Ireland assembly members, to improve the lives of people living here."

On Monday night, the DUP's 120-strong executive agreed to endorse a deal to return to Stormont pending the passage of legislation at Westminster.

"Following the completion of detailed internal party processes with my party officers, all our elected members and DUP peers in the Lords, as well as the government having taken the legislative steps required of it, we are now able to re-establish the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive", Sir Jeffrey said on Thursday.

Speaking earlier during Thursday's debate in the House of Commons, Mr Chris Heaton-Harris said that when Stormont is up and running Northern Ireland politicians "will be able to deliver strong government, make the right decisions for Northern Ireland and make Northern Ireland a much more prosperous place".

Of the deal agreed earlier this week, he said: "Crucially, this legislation will also change the law so that new regulatory borders between Great Britain and Northern Ireland cannot emerge through future agreements with the European Union.

"This is an important new safeguard to futureproof Northern Ireland's constitutional status."

Sir Jeffrey told the Commons that the NI Protocol "undermined the principle of consent" in the eyes of unionists, which he said was "at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement".

He added: "The new measures and legislation reset the balance so it is the principle of consent and the will of the people of Northern Ireland alone that will determine the future of our country as part of the United Kingdom."

However, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the command paper undermined the Good Friday Agreement and questioned whether the government had "moved away from the principle of rigorous impartiality".

Later, Mr Eastwood said that Sir Jeffrey had "done a lot of good work over the last couple of weeks" and that he had been very brave as it was "not an easy thing to face down people within your own constituency".

However, he said he wanted to put on record that the SDLP opposed the command paper as it undermined north-south co-operation and placed too much emphasis on east-west.

'Grasp the opportunity'

Later, debating the second part of the legislation, Steve Baker, minister of state for Northern Ireland, said the institutional arrangements for Stormont and the government's £3.3bn financial package represented a big opportunity for Northern Ireland.

"If Northern Ireland politicians reach out and grasp the opportunity before them - my goodness, they can make Northern Ireland a beacon before the world, a beacon of prosperity, I hope a beacon of reconciliation, and these regulations today are part of that process," he said.

Asked by Mr Eastwood if he supported the part of the Good Friday Agreement which demands the UK government remain "rigorously impartial" Mr Baker said he "absolutely" does.

He said that the agreement reached with the DUP was compatible "both with our unionism and with our full respect of all dimensions of the Belfast Agreement".

Shadow Secretary of State Hilary Benn said: "Once we've done our bit today, it will be over to the politicians of Northern Ireland."

Criticism within party

However, DUP MP Sammy Wilson told the Commons that he does not support the deal.

He said it was important to examine the detail and he did not think the way the legislation had been "hurried through" allowed for such examination.

DUP peer Lord Dodds welcomed the creation of new bodies under the new agreement such as InterTrade UK and the East-West Council, adding: "I commend and congratulate all those who have been involved in the talks."

But he said there were "many, many unionists who are deeply worried and concerned that the Irish Sea Border - and we must drill down into the details of this deal - that the Irish Sea border still exists".

He said this was because "many goods coming from Great Britain, British goods coming to Northern Ireland, especially in manufacturing, still need to go through full EU compliance checks and procedures".

Strains on DUP bench

Analysis box by Enda McClafferty, NI political editor
Analysis box by Enda McClafferty, NI political editor

They were sitting on the same bench but clearly don't share the same view of the deal secured by their party.

While Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has been talking up the positives of the agreement he negotiated, his colleague Sammy Wilson has been knocking them down.

The tension between the pair has been laid bare.

At one point, the DUP leader suggested his colleague should read the agreement.

"I urge the member for East Antrim to read all the document," he said.

In another veiled swipe at his internal critics, Sir Jeffrey reminded the House that all his MPs supported the red lane arrangements in a previous bill.

The same arrangements some of his MPs complained about in the Commons debate on Thursday.

There is no disguising the strains on the DUP bench which are unlikely to ease anytime soon.

What's in the deal?

It will reduce checks and paperwork on goods moving from the rest of the UK into Northern Ireland.

It means there would no longer be "routine" checks on Great Britain goods which are sent to Northern Ireland with the intention of staying there.

Those changes involve the maximum flexibility allowed under a previous EU/UK deal it is understood will be acceptable to the EU.

On Tuesday, the UK and EU Joint Committee reached an agreement to make changes to that deal to allow Northern Ireland to benefit from UK Free Trade Agreements.

Jeffrey Donaldson and Chris Heaton-Harris
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and NI Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris held a joint press conference on Wednesday

'Hype and spin'

On Thursday evening, about 100 opponents of the Safeguarding the Union deal gathered at an Orange Hall in County Tyrone.

Among those attending the meeting in Moygashel were the TUV leader Jim Allister and the loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson.

Jim Allister, Jamie Bryson and addressing opponents of the Safeguarding the Union deal in Moygashal
TUV leader Jim Allister addressed the crowd in Moygashel on Thursday evening

Mr Allister told the meeting Northern Ireland had been subjected to "the most astounding level of spin and hype" and "remains a rule-taker from Brussels".

"Northern Ireland is now, in constitutional terms, what would be described as a condominium," he added.

"That's to say we are ruled in part by UK laws and we are ruled in part by EU laws."

people attending opponents of the Safeguarding the Union deal in Moygashal
Organisers of the meeting in Moygashel say both the DUP and Ulster Unionist Party were invited but did not attend

It was the first public meeting of opponents of the deal since it was unveiled.

The organisers say the DUP and Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) were invited to the meeting but did not turn up.

What is likely to happen on Saturday?

The first order of business for members (MLAs) when they enter the assembly chamber will be to elect a new Speaker - this must happen before anything else.

Once the Speaker is elected, the parties entitled to jointly lead the executive - the body that makes decisions and policy in Northern Ireland - will make their nominations.

For the first time Sinn Féin will nominate a first minister because it won the most seats in the assembly election in May 2022.

The DUP, as the largest unionist party, will nominate a deputy first minister for the first time.

Although the first and deputy first ministers are joint offices and both hold equal power, Michelle O'Neill becoming the first-ever republican first minister of Northern Ireland will mark a symbolic moment.