Secretary of State says UK Government will help with Northern Ireland finances as talks begin

Public sector workers staged a noisy protest outside Hillsborough Castle ahead of all-party talks.

The five main political parties are meeting the government in the Co Down village.

As party leaders arrived, public sector union representatives tackled them.

Unison chairperson Stephanie Greenwood stopped Jeffrey Donaldson asking: “What I’m asking is, do you feel it is a good idea to have health workers, nurses, support workers, domestics, standing here today on the streets outside Hillsborough without pay parity with our co-workers in England?”

The DUP leader replied: “No, of course not, and that’s why we’re going in here, as we have been doing at Westminster."

He added: “Stormont doesn’t have the money, we’re facing an overspend this year, we need to deal with that, we need to get the money that enables us to make a fair pay award to all our public sector workers.”

Michelle O’Neil was also confronted by Ms. Greenwood.

The Unison chairperson said: “You promised us in 2019 pay parity, we’re just asking you to deliver on that promise.”

Ms O’Neill responded: “That’s the case that we’re going to make very strongly to Chris Heaton-Harris today.”

Ms Greenwood added: “Can you please send him (Mr Heaton-Harris) out because he’s been playing hide and seek”, to which Ms O’Neill replied: “He’s been playing hide and seek with everybody.”

Speaking outside the castle, the Secretary of Stare said his focus remains on delivering for the public who "expect and deserve locally elected decision-makers to address the issues that matter to them".

He said the UK Government continues to work toward resolving the DUP’s concerns over the Windsor Framework in an effort to restore devolution but that he would not provide a "running commentary" on negotiations.

Mr Heaton-Harris explained the focus of Monday's talks was on "ensuring financial stability and sustainability for Northern Ireland".

He said: "I want to agree the basis upon which the Northern Ireland Executive can return on a stable financial footing.

"I also want to ensure that public services are able to meet the needs of the people of Northern Ireland."

Mr Heaton Harris added: "The UK Government is willing to help, but all these issues can best be addressed by the return of locally accountable institutions built on secure foundations. 

"And I hope our work together over the next few days will do exactly that."

The Secretary of State refused to take questions.

Devolved government has not been functioning in Northern Ireland for nearly two years because of the DUP’s ongoing boycott of the institutions in protest at post-Brexit trade agreements. The DUP has been in negotiations with the Government to secure legislative assurances over Northern Ireland’s economic position in the UK.

Local parties have also been calling for reform of the financial model used to allocate Treasury funds to the region on an annual basis. They have also been looking for more say in spending money currently directly allocated to projects by the UK Government.

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