Northern Ireland’s biggest unionist party will extend its boycott of Stormont’s political institutions unless there is a “fundamental recalibration” of the region’s finances, a senior figure said on Monday.
Gavin Robinson, a Democratic Unionist party MP, said in an interview with the BBC that with a more than £800mn budget shortfall, the only option was to cut spending and “that is not good enough for Northern Ireland”.
The DUP has been boycotting both the assembly and power-sharing executive since regional elections last May to press for changes to post-Brexit trade rules for the region.
The party’s performance in local council elections last Thursday, in which it held all its seats and did not suffer losses to the harder-line Traditional Unionist Voice, has raised expectations that the DUP might inch back towards returning to Stormont, potentially this autumn.
The Brexit agreement put a customs border in the Irish Sea and left some EU trade rules in place in Northern Ireland, which the DUP has argued undermines the region’s place in the UK and its internal market.
But Robinson appeared to suggest there would be expensive strings attached. “If we see — and we want to see — a return to devolution, it is going to have to be matched with a fundamental recalibration of how Northern Ireland is funded,” he told BBC Northern Ireland.
“You cannot have a return to positive or stable devolution unless . . . you resolve the issues and you give locally elected ministers the ability and the finances to deliver for the people,” he said.
Sinn Féin, the pro-Irish unity party, won a bigger-than-expected victory in the elections, sweeping control of six of Northern Ireland’s 11 councils and clinching 144 of the 462 seats. The DUP retained its 122 councillors.
“There has been a very clear view now twice, in the course of a year, from the electorate that they want Stormont back in place,” said Conor Murphy, Sinn Féin’s former finance minister.
In the absence of Stormont, Chris Heaton-Harris, the UK’s Northern Ireland secretary, has set a tough budget and criticised “years of fiscal mismanagement” of the region’s finances.
Jayne Brady, head of the region’s civil service, has summoned the five main parties to talks on Thursday on a crisis that could spell politically sensitive cuts to the health service, education, nursing training and apprenticeships.
Heaton-Harris has promised legislative changes to reassure unionists that Northern Ireland’s place within the UK is secure.
One former DUP special adviser said the party was looking for an assurance that there could be no preparation for a future referendum on Irish reunification until a so-called border poll had been held.
The DUP believes it is being bullied by Heaton-Harris, with promises dangled, conditional on a resumption of Stormont. The DUP is widely believed to want both legislation and a cash sweetener before going back into the executive.
“The base electorally have endorsed what we want. Heaton-Harris — it’s over to you,” said the former adviser. He only sees a 50:50 chance of Stormont resuming after the traditional unionist marching season which takes place in July.
“If they can’t get it back by this autumn, they may as well wait for a Labour government [in the UK],” he said. “Why would you negotiate with the British government any more?”
Another former party strategist was slightly more upbeat, seeing a 60 per cent chance of Stormont being back before Christmas.
“It’s more likely than not,” he added. “But it’s certainly not inevitable.”