Vicki Hawthorne: Cold winter set to blow in as parties resume Stormont restoration talks

Northern Ireland political talks aimed at bringing about Stormont restoration set to resume.

Monday will mark a return to Hillsborough Castle for Northern Ireland's political leaders and the Secretary of State. Chris Heaton-Harris has invited Sinn Féin, the DUP, the Alliance Party, the UUP and the SDLP for a series of bi-lateral meetings. His invitation to the party leaders says "the purpose of the meetings will be to discuss ongoing efforts to restore the Executive".

It will be a month since the Secretary of State announced to the gathered media in front of Hillsborough Castle that the Government's discussions with the DUP had 'effectively ended' and it was time for the DUP to make a decision about returning to Stormont. It was an announcement which wasn't expected by the DUP. But, the DUP's Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has continued to insist his party's talks about its concerns about the Windsor Framework are continuing and confirmed in a statement this week that the discussions with the Government were 'recommencing' this week. So what is Monday about? There's no doubt that the mass strikes planned across Northern Ireland on Thursday is an issue that is focusing minds. The strikes and the impact has left patients preparing for cancelled appointments and parents scrambling for days off or extra childcare as they are told by schools they will close. The strikes are designed to put pressure on the Secretary of State and the politicians to deliver a pay award for public sector workers which Mr Heaton-Harris has confirmed is available - but only if Stormont returns. At Hillsborough Castle in December the Secretary of State confirmed the Government will give £3.3billion to a returning Executive, including £584m for public sector pay. Unions are incensed in the belief that workers are being used as pawns by the Government to increase pressure on the DUP. The Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland Office have consistently said that the financial package for Stormont remains on the table. They have also insisted they do not have the power to deliver public sector pay awards, that it is only in the gift of any Executive. The unions and the local parties don't buy it. All the political parties have been arguing that the Government should make the money for pay awards available immediately and that it should not be tied to any political deal. The DUP says it wants to ensure that any money for pay awards available this year, will also be sustained in future years. Midnight on Thursday is also the legal deadline when the Secretary of State must call an election if a Stormont Executive has not been formed. No one believes Chris Heaton-Harris will do that, instead the expectation is that he will do what he and others have done before, extend the deadline once more and give yet more time to get a deal. The Secretary of State is likely to use Monday's meetings to update all the parties on what he plans to do next in terms of shifting the legal deadline. He may well threaten to cut MLAs' salaries again, it's been over a year since he cut their pay by 27.5%. He may believe that could make a popular headline in the week that public sector workers are demanding fair pay. UTV understands that at least one party had asked to meet the Secretary of State over its concerns around the drift in any effort to get Stormont back, and then the invitation to meet Mr Heaton-Harris arrived in all party inboxes. The Government will be at pains to try to show that all the parties have ownership of any discussions about a return to Stormont, instead of a focus on the DUP. Monday is forecast to be one of the coldest days of the winter so far. Political reporters are bracing themselves for the cold wait outside Hillsborough Castle. With no sign of any imminent breakthrough, it is unlikely to feel any warmer inside.

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