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Secretary of State: Returning Executive Can Unleash Northern Ireland's Potential

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Chris Heaton-Harris wrote in the Belfast Telegraph about his hopes for a restored executive and what it could mean for Northern Ireland


The Rt Hon Chris Heaton-Harris MP, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
The Rt Hon Chris Heaton-Harris MP, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

I was hoping that as I wrote this, Northern Ireland would have just seen its devolved Government start working again in Stormont. Alas, as we move into 2024 Northern Ireland will have been without a fully functioning executive for 23 months.


That’s just under two years without the locally elected politicians you voted for delivering for you. That’s meant hundreds of decisions and opportunities haven’t been taken by the people you voted for and the issues facing your public services haven’t been addressed.


Earlier this month the UK Government held intense discussions with the political parties in an attempt to get them to agree how the Northern Ireland Executive can return on a stable financial footing and ensure public services are able to meet the needs of people here. I put a fair and generous package on the table worth over £3 billion.


It’s a package that provides solutions to many important issues raised by the parties, including a new method for deciding how much money Northern Ireland receives from the UK Government; hundreds of millions of pounds of assistance for public sector pay; and over £1 billion to stabilise Northern Ireland’s public services.


It’s disappointing that the discussions concluded without the return of a devolved government in Northern Ireland, but this funding remains on the table for a returned Executive to take up on day one, and really would set Northern Ireland on a sustainable footing with a bright future ahead.


Some are now looking to the 18th of January as a deadline. It is a matter of fact that this is the date when I will once again fall under a legal duty to call a new election at Stormont and it will no longer be legally possible for an Executive to form. I am considering all options carefully, however, I want Stormont to return as soon as possible so I am not treating this date as a target and will be relentlessly working with all parties to find a way forward.


January 18 is also the date when thousands of public sector workers will go on strike over pay. A returned Executive could stop these strikes and the disruption it brings to people across Northern Ireland. By getting back to work they will unlock the £584 million made available by the UK Government to address public sector pay.


People in Northern Ireland expect and deserve devolved government back as soon as possible, to make use of the financial package we have put on the table. In its absence however, the UK Government cannot and will not just stand by and allow public services and finances to decline further. Which is why, just like last year, we are preparing a pragmatic and reasonable approach to support the Northern Ireland Civil Service in stabilising public finances and services via a sustainable budget, should the Executive not be back in place to do so itself.


But we are clear that there must be a limit to how far the UK Government can go without an Executive in place. That is because the financial package we have offered requires decisions on how to improve and modernise the public services and these must be taken by locally-elected politicians with the mandate to do so. It should not just be for local politicians to dispense funding from the UK government. They should take active and sometimes difficult decisions about where priorities lie, because they know the place and the needs of their constituents better than anyone else.


As Secretary of State I have focused on getting Stormont back up and running and upholding the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement in all its strands. I will never stand down these efforts. I am confident the support that would be provided by the UK Government to an incoming Executive will allow the devolved institutions to be set up for success rather than failure.

Now it is time for people in Northern Ireland to see those they elected back in place taking decisions on the issues that matter most to them.


2024 is the year when Northern Ireland’s potential could be completely unleashed - for that to happen Stormont needs to return.

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