Northern Ireland’s biggest unionist party vowed to extend its boycott of Stormont’s political institutions until London reforms the region’s budget and provides guarantees over its place in the UK.
Democratic Unionist party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said on Monday local council elections held last week had delivered “a renewed mandate to go back to the government and secure the solutions that we need”.
The DUP has been boycotting the assembly and power-sharing executive at Stormont since regional elections last May in protest at post-Brexit trade rules, which it argues undermine the region’s position in the UK and its internal market.
Despite the Windsor framework, a deal agreed by London and Brussels to iron out Brexit hurdles, Donaldson said more changes were still needed “to restore our place in the UK and our ability to trade with the rest of the UK”.
The party held all its seats and did not suffer losses to the harder-line Traditional Unionist Voice, raising expectations that it might inch back towards returning to Stormont, potentially this autumn.
But Donaldson told reporters: “I believe the mandate we’ve been given in the council elections is a mandate to finish the job.” He said he would this week meet Chris Heaton-Harris, UK Northern Ireland secretary, to press for a “needs-based budget” for the region.
The current Barnett formula, designed to ensure devolved UK regions receive proportionate government funding from London, “is not delivering”, he said. In the absence of Stormont, Heaton-Harris has set a tough budget and criticised “years of fiscal mismanagement” of the region’s finances.
Earlier, Gavin Robinson, a DUP MP, told the BBC that given the region’s estimated £800mn budget shortfall, the only option currently was to cut spending and “that is not good enough for Northern Ireland”.
“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 said.
Sinn Féin, the pro-Irish unity party, won a bigger-than-expected victory in Thursday’s elections, sweeping control of six of Northern Ireland’s 11 councils and 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.
Jayne Brady, head of the region’s civil service, has summoned the five main parties to talks on Thursday on a crisis as politically sensitive cuts to the health service, education, nursing training and apprenticeships loom.
But the DUP wants more than money for the region. Heaton-Harris has promised legislative changes to reassure unionists that Northern Ireland’s place in the UK is secure after Brexit put a customs border in the Irish Sea.
One former DUP special adviser said the party was looking for a commitment that no preparations for Irish reunification should be made until a referendum on the issue had been held.
“The base electorally have endorsed what we want. Heaton-Harris — it’s over to you,” said the DUP adviser, who said he only saw a 50:50 chance of Stormont resuming after the traditional unionist marching season in July.
“If they can’t get it back by this autumn, they may as well wait for a [UK] Labour government,” he said. “Why would you negotiate with the British government any more?”
Another former party strategist was more upbeat, seeing a 60 per cent chance of Stormont back before Christmas.
“It’s more likely than not,” he added. “But it’s certainly not inevitable.”