The government believes “all the conditions are now in place” for a return of power-sharing in Northern Ireland following a deal reached with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said he was looking forward to the “restoration of the institutions at Stormont as soon as possible” following a near two-year suspension by the DUP in protest against post-Brexit trade arrangements.
Mr Heaton-Harris, who said the deal represented a “significant development, denied the agreement was a “secret” deal in response to a question from Sky News.
Askes by deputy political editor what had changed, and whether there were going to be fewer checks on goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, the minister replied: “There are some significant changes but you’ll have to wait until the package is… well, not the package is finalised, but the all-party talks are finalised.
“And when I publish the deal in parliament, everyone will see what it is.”
Press on whether there could be a deal on the basis of a “secret package?”, Mr Heaton-Harris said: “It’s not a secret package.
“It’s been a negotiation, and the negotiation has been between the Democratic Unionist Party and the UK government.”
The Northern Ireland secretary said all of the parties in Northern Ireland were not being briefed on the deal and that he would be in a position to reveal the details once they had been finalised.
Although he did not reveal specific details, Mr Heaton Harris confirmed a financial package of £3.3bn will be available to the incoming executive.
“I believe that all the conditions are now in place for the Assembly to return, and I look forward very much to the restoration of the institutions at Stormont as soon as possible,” he said.
He also praised DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson for his “leadership” and said it has “never been in doubt” that Sir Jeffrey’s “prime concern was to secure and reinforce Northern Ireland’s place in the union”.
In the early hours of this morning Sir Jeffrey said his party would restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland, subject to the UK government tabling and passing new legislative measures as agreed in negotiations.
He said the package of measures, once delivered, would provide the basis for the return of devolved government.
Power-sharing, the mechanism by which a Stormont executive is formed under the Good Friday Agreement, was collapsed by the DUP‘s refusal to allow a speaker to be nominated in 2022.
The DUP, which won fewer seats than the republican Sinn Fein party for the first time in 2022’s election, highlighted its opposition to Rishi Sunak’s Windsor Framework deal with the EU, which it argues has created a border down the Irish Sea, separating Northern Ireland from Great Britain – a contravention of its principles.
Speaking after Mr Heaton-Harris’s conference, Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said the re-establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly had been “a long time coming”, but added: “We are very pleased we are at this juncture.”
She went on to say she was aware there further work to be done and that “society has really suffered from the absence of government over the last two years”.
“I very much welcome the fact that the DUP have moved to explicitly recognise and respect the outcome of that Assembly election, and we look forward to getting the job done.”
When the executive is restored, Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill will become Northern Ireland’s first nationalist first minister, which Ms McDonald described as “a mark, I suppose, of the extent of change that has occurred here in the north, and indeed, right across Ireland”.
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long also said she had “bittersweet emotions” following the announcement of the deal.
Speaking at Stormont, she said: “I am here with what I would describe as bittersweet emotions today.
“I am pleased that we are now potentially in a position to see the restoration of the institutions and to be able to actually start doing all of our jobs after a two-year block on that.
“I admit I am still slightly stinging from the fact that we have lost that two years, that the damage that has been done can’t simply be undone.”
Under the Good Friday agreement, Northern Ireland operates under a power-sharing model where at least two parties agree to govern together to form a government.
The executive is made up of the job of first minister and deputy first minister.
Following the 2022 election result, Ms O’Neill of Sinn Fein is set to be first minister while the DUP will pick the deputy first minister.