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Stormont: Party leaders meet before assembly session


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Power-sharing collapsed in February 2022 when Paul Givhan resigned as Prime Minister

Party leaders and officials met to discuss key issues for Stormont's next chief executive.

The Northern Ireland Assembly will convene on Saturday, exactly two years after power-sharing collapsed.

DUP leader Sir Geoffrey Donaldson said his party would end its boycott, after MPs passed legislation on a new deal on post-Brexit trade rules.

They have seen their pay cut by almost a third since January 2023, decided by Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris.

The Northern Ireland Office confirmed that the decision will expire at the end of Sunday, the day after the election of a new Speaker of Parliament.

Leaders of the four parties entitled to seats on Stormont's decision-making executive committee are meeting to finalize arrangements for the special session on Saturday.

The session is scheduled to be held at 1:00 GMT on Saturday.

What happens on Saturday?

The first thing MLAs should do when they enter the General Assembly hall is to elect a new President – and this should happen before anything else.

Once the Speaker of Parliament is elected, the parties entitled to jointly lead the Executive – the decision-making and policy-making body in Northern Ireland – will submit their nominations.

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Michelle O'Neill is tipped to become First Minister

For the first time, Sinn Féin will nominate a First Minister as it won the largest number of seats in the Assembly elections scheduled for May 2022.

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

Although the posts of First Minister and Deputy First Minister are joint offices and have equal powers, Michelle O'Neill becoming Northern Ireland's first ever Republican First Minister will represent a symbolic moment.

What's in the deal?

This will reduce inspections and paperwork on goods moving from the rest of the UK to Northern Ireland.

This means there will no longer be “routine” checks on Great Britain goods being sent to Northern Ireland with the intention of remaining there.

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DUP leader Sir Geoffrey Donaldson (left) has reached an agreement with the UK government on post-Brexit trade issues

These changes include the maximum flexibility permitted under a previous agreement between the EU and the UK which it is understood would be acceptable to the EU.

The Democratic Unionist Party had demanded changes to the way goods were traded between Northern Ireland and Great Britain in order to end the Stormont impasse.

Any return of a power-sharing executive at Stormont would see the UK Treasury release a £3.3bn package that would help prop up Northern Ireland's struggling public services.

More funding is needed to address wage disputes

“What the UK government is offering as part of the package is to cover public sector payroll compensation for just one year,” he said.

The DUP leader said this equated to around £650m, but Northern Ireland did not currently have “the capacity for the next two years and the government knows this needs to be resolved”.

He said he believed they had reached a point where “the UK Government recognizes there is a shortfall” and a number of meetings would be held to address recurring funding.

Sir Geoffrey said that if they did not get the funding, the newly created executive would not be able to settle ongoing pay disputes without access to money from the £1bn stabilization fund.

He continued that without adequate government funding going forward, they would not be able to address many issues, such as those relating to the health service which he described as an “absolute priority” for Stormont.

Who will be the opposition at Stormont?

The Social Democratic Action Party (SDLP), the fifth largest party with eight members in the council, is not eligible to be part of the next executive and will instead go to the opposition.

Speaking on the BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme, SDLP assembly member Matthew O'Toole said the opposition would hold the parties in the executive to account and make the institutions “work effectively for the people of Northern Ireland”.

The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) will not enter opposition at Stormont and will instead take up a ministerial position in the executive.

Party leader Doug Beattie has previously indicated he would have liked to be part of the official opposition, but said his party's mandate was to return to government.

He said the decision was based on a “sense of cohesion” that the parties were prepared to work well together in the next executive, but added that each administration would find itself facing financial struggles.

The party did not clarify the ministerial lineup it is competing for, but it will get the fifth choice.

The Alliance Party is also entitled to seats in the executive branch. However, she has not yet confirmed whether she will join the government or the opposition.

The Alliance Party's Andrew Muir told the BBC: “There are benefits to joining the opposition, but there are also significant benefits to joining the government.

On Friday, a group of unionists, including traditional unionist voice leader Jim Allister and campaigner Jamie Bryson, published a legal opinion by former Northern Ireland Attorney-General John Larkin KC.

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A group of unionists, including Jim Allister (right) and campaigner Jimmy Bryson, have sought a legal opinion on the deal

Mr Allister said Mr Larkin concluded that “there is nothing here that reinstates section 6 of the Union Act, it remains outstanding – and the consequences of that are enormous”.

He added: “We shared many platforms with Jeffrey Donaldson. In the face of the volatility that accompanied this deal, we wanted to divest it and evaluate the legal facts.”

Mr Allister questioned the legal advice and Sir Geoffrey claimed he said his deal removed the Irish Sea border and restored Northern Ireland's position within the UK's internal market.

Sir Geoffrey has in recent days berated his unionist rivals, accusing them of offering “nothing” when it comes to changing the Northern Ireland Protocol.

“Sir Geoffrey is the one who took on this mission and he has failed, and there is no point in trying to get away from it,” Alistair said.

Sir Geoffrey told reporters on Friday that he “fundamentally disagreed” with Mr Larkin's legal opinion.

“Jim Allister – is this the best he can do?” he added.

“What I brought was change. I stood on stage with Jim Allister and he talked a lot, he shouted a lot, but he had nothing to show for his actions.”

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