/Deal holds NI to ransom over health staff pay

Deal holds NI to ransom over health staff pay


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Does a new dawn beckon for the Stormont institutions?

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 for Friday.

But that depends on Robin Newton hearing “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

Speaking to BBC News NI, Mr Smith said politicians have “decisions to make but now is the time”.

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.”

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Simon Coveney and Julian Smith held a joint media conference on Thursday night

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

‘An entirely different construct’

Speaking on the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster programme on Friday, Arlene Foster said she was “hopeful” that the DUP and Sinn Féin can restore the executive.

The DUP leader said she had spoken to Michelle O’Neill on Thursday evening.

“Discussions will continue throughout the day and hopefully we can get to a place where we can have the executive up and running again,” she said.

Earlier in the week, the Orange Order reiterated its opposition to a standalone Irish language act.

But Mrs Foster argued that the new deal was “an entirely different construct to what was suggested before”.

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

Questioned on BBC Radio Ulster’s Nolan show about whether a unionist veto around the Irish language was included in the small print of the draft document, DUP chief whip Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said standards “set for the use of the Irish language have to be agreed by the first minister”.

“That does mean the DUP will have a very important and crucial say in how those standards are drawn up and what they will be,” he said.

In a statement on Thursday night, Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald 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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Mr Smith and Mr Coveney brief the press on the deal

Mr Smith said the deal will transform public services and restore public confidence in devolved government, and asked all parties to support it.

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

However, he said he had indicated to health unions that money would not be forthcoming until a deal was completed.

“There is no money coming unless the executive gets up and running,” he told BBC Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster programme.

“I want to focus on public services, they need to get back to work,” he said.

Thousands of healthcare workers across Northern Ireland are going ahead with strike action on Friday, despite efforts to restore Stormont.

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

Mr Coveney said the path that led to this point 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, a journalist, was murdered by the New IRA in April last year.

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.

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”.

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The call for an Irish language act has been a key sticking point

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
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