WITH Stormont in limbo and financial pressures building on public spending, pressure is growing on DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson to move his party back into government. Sir Jeffrey visited Newtownards at the weekend to brief party members and local Unionist leaders on the current situation and while he is hopeful of progress this autumn, warns there is ‘still some way to go’.
“We are not yet in the place where we have a solution”
“I emphasise, there is still some way to go in the talks”
“I am not asking them for something they can’t deliver”
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson believes an agreement on thorny Brexit issues that led to Stormont’s collapse can be reached without reopening Windsor Framework negotiations with the European Union.
During a visit to the borough on Friday, the Lagan Valley MP said the British government is ‘capable’ of delivering a resolution on internal trade without new negotiations and wants Westminster to bring forward legislation that will ‘future proof’ these arrangements.
Mr Donaldson also said that before Stormont can be restored, the government must commit to providing more financial support for Northern Ireland which he said is underfunded when compared to the rest of the UK.
The veteran politician said the assembly could not ‘fix’ the many problems currently facing local public services, including a health care system in crisis, without securing Treasury funding.
When asked to set out the remainingBrexit issues blocking his party’s Stormont return, Mr Donaldson said: “There is no doubt the Windsor Framework represents progress in terms of some of the concerns we have about the Northern Ireland Protocol and the impact on our ability to trade with the rest of the UK.
“We believe there remain some points of concern. We believe some of the checks that will continue to take place on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland are unnecessary and will deter businesses in Great Britain from selling goods in Northern Ireland.
“We would like to see greater flexibility and clarity on these arrangements so it is easier for both consumers and businesses in Northern Ireland to access goods and products from suppliers in Great Britain. That’s the main area of concern as far as the Windsor Framework is concerned and the main areas we are focusing on.”
The DUP also wants Westminster to bring forward legislation to ‘future proof’ unionist concerns.
“Another thing that we want to achieve in talks with the government is putting legislation in place, not just addressing concerns that we have at the moment about the impact of the protocol on Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom, but also ensuring we are future proofing these arrangements.”
As for setting a return date for the Stormont institutions, Mr Donaldson said there was ‘still some way to go’.
“Ideally I would like to see more progress and there is more work to be done. We are not yet in the place where we have a solution but I would like to see those talks successfully concluded this autumn.
“So if we get the right outcome then we can move to restore the political institutions at Stormont. I emphasise there is still some way to go in the talks. We want to get the right outcome and that is what I am working to achieve.”
When asked if he thought the British government wanted to see a resolution, Mr Donaldson said he does believe the Secretary of State and his team want to get to an agreement.
“I think the UK government does want to see Stormont back up and running but I believe the government could go further to protect Northern Ireland’s ability to trade with the rest of the UK which is fundamentally important for our place in the United Kingdom.”
The British government has already stated it will not reopen negotiations with the European Union on the Windsor Framework but Mr Donaldson doesn’t believe that is necessary for a successful resolution of the issues.
“Most of the focus of our discussions is about how we move goods within the United Kingdom, it is about trade and the internal market.
“That is solely the responsibility of the UK government. I am not asking them for something they can’t deliver. I am saying what we want is an outcome that respects Northern Ireland’s place within the UK, that is what the UK government should be capable of delivering.”
He stressed the importance of securing Treasury funding to ‘fix’ many of Northern Ireland’s public service problem. “Equally I have to be honest with people as Stormont doesn’t have the resources to do all the things we need to improve public services.
“Northern Ireland is currently underfunded. We receive less per head of the population than the rest of the UK. It is not just a question of getting Stormont back up and running, we need to get the Treasury to change the funding formula so the resources we have meet the needs of the people of Northern Ireland.”
Mr Donaldson said the DUP is working in the House of Commons, ‘making the case for Northern Ireland to get more funding for public services and I believe there is a strong case for that’.
As for the mounting frustration felt by local people about the absence of a functioning government Mr Donaldson said he is a devolutionist and wants to see Stormont back up and running.
He said he believed ‘local politicians representing local people’ were best placed to deal with issues regarding public services such as healthcare provision, education and schools.
He said it was with ‘great reluctance’ that the DUP withdrew from the position of First Minister thereby collapsing the devolved institutions which have not been functioning for 18 months.
However he said: “But we felt the UK government were ignoring the concerns of unionists about the Protocol. It was evident the EU were not prepared to come back to the negotiating table.”
Regarding the ongoing impasse Mr Donaldson said: “I have worked all over the summer to try and progress our negotiations to find a solution. I want Stormont back in place to deliver outcomes for healthcare, education, schools and all the other issues that relate to our public services.”
When asked what would be the consequences of not reaching an agreement, Mr Donaldson said: “I don’t want to contemplate anything other than a successful outcome because I want to see Northern Ireland working and Stormont functioning, delivering for everyone in Northern Ireland.”
With a political career stretching over 40 years, beginning as campaign manager for Enoch Powell when he was the Ulster Unionist MP for South Down, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson admits his role as DUP party leader is ‘undoubtedly’ the most challenging.
He said: “I started politics joining the Ulster Unionists in 1982, at the time of the hunger strikes, there was a lot of violence on our streets. There is no doubt that in the past 40 years Northern Ireland has been transformed and I welcome that.
“In political terms, the position I now hold is undoubtedly challenging and yet I have enjoyed meeting a lot of people across Northern Ireland. It is challenging but I remain positive about the future of this place.”