Powersharing returns to NI as UK fast-tracks legislation to deliver on Stormont deal

Assembly members will meet at 1pm on Saturday as DUP and UK government reach deal on post-Brexit arrangements

The Northern Ireland Assembly will meet on Saturday after the House of Commons in Westminster pushed through legislation to give legal effect to the deal agreed between the British Government and the DUP to revive powersharing in the North.

MPs debated the issue for more than three hours on Thursday before the legislation, delivered through two statutory instruments passed via an oral vote with little opposition, apart from the SDLP.

The changes included a complex package of measures to reduce checks on good travelling between the North and Britain, and to reassure the DUP about the North’s place in the UK’s internal market.

Speaker of the Stormont Assembly Alex Maskey confirmed in a statement that members had been summonsed to meet at 1pm on Saturday, February 3rd. Mr Maskey said he would meet party whips on Friday to discuss arrangements for the sitting and an order paper would be issued in advance.


SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, told the debate that his party opposed the changes as laid out in the command paper laid before the house. He said they “undermined” the north-south relationship by changing references in previous agreements to the all-island economy.

“The SDLP don’t support the command paper. [We] think [the changes proposed] move too far away from north-south and towards east-west,” he said, adding that the changes had gone “too far in the way of the DUP”.

Mr Eastwood also challenged Chris Heaton-Harris, the Northern Ireland Secretary, about whether the UK Government had moved away from its stance of “rigorous impartiality” in relation to the Belfast Agreement.

The SDLP leader recalled the words of a previous secretary, Peter Brooke, who famously declared that the UK Government had no “selfish or strategic interest” in the north. He said the deal with the DUP suggested Britain was moving away from the position espoused by Mr Brooke.

Mr Eastwood later asked Steve Baker, a minister of state for Northern Ireland, if he still believed in rigorous impartiality in relation to the Belfast Agreement. Mr Baker replied that he did, although Jeffrey Donaldson, the leader of the DUP interjected to say “not on the union”.

Mr Donaldson made an impassioned defence of his party’s deal with the UK Government, which was opposed by a section of his party and other hardline unionists, including the TUV.

“My detractors have been vocal in challenging me to debate,” he said. “When they are in a position to set out the changes that they have secured [to protect the union], then I’ll consider a discussion with them. I will not accept their criticism of what we have achieved.”

His fellow DUP MP Sammy Wilson said he opposed the deal because it still allowed for sections of European Union law to apply in the North. After one specific criticism by Mr Wilson, his party leader interjected to advise him to “read all of the proposals”.

Mr Eastwood, who chatted in Mr Donaldon’s ear and joked with him throughout the debate, later acknowledged the “good work” that the DUP leader had done in recent weeks. He said Mr Donaldson had been “very brave”.

“It’s not an easy thing to face down people in your own constituency,” he said.

DUP MP Jim Shannon asked Mr Heaton-Harris if he would promise, by putting his hands on the despatch box, that the deal would “renew” the North’s place in the UK market. “It does,” replied the Northern Secretary, touching the box.

  • Sign up for push alerts and have the best news, analysis and comment delivered directly to your phone
  • Find The Irish Times on WhatsApp and stay up to date
  • Our In The News podcast is now published daily – Find the latest episode here
Mark Paul

Mark Paul

Mark Paul is London Correspondent for The Irish Times

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times