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NI leaders to take ‘last stab’ at restoring Assembly

The UK government told us the talking was over, but Stormont’s politicians will be back at it on Monday.

It feels though as if they are going through the motions.

It’s pretty clear the DUP is sticking to its power-sharing boycott over its opposition to the Windsor Framework – the post Brexit trading rules for Northern Ireland.

And while patience with them has evaporated, it’s hard to see how the process moves on without them.

Next week there’ll be a series of bilateral discussions at Hillsborough Castle outside Belfast.

Northern Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris will meet each of the parties in turn, starting mid morning with Sinn Féin.

One insider said the idea was to have a “last stab” at it. “Let’s see if there’s any life left in the thing.”

The big cash deal that’s on the table will be polished up and presented again – £3.3bn (€3.8bn) from the UK Treasury to support the restoration of devolution.

But that financial inducement didn’t work before Christmas and is unlikely to do so now.

The one thing that’s different this time is a huge public sector strike scheduled for Thursday.

Nurses, teachers, classroom assistants, civil servants, public transport workers, health care workers are all taking to the picket lines over pay.

It’s the biggest coordinated industrial action in years – effectively a general strike – involving up to 170,000 workers.

They’re demanding a cost of living increase at a time when Stormont budgets are pared way back.

The money to begin addressing their demands is available within that UK government financial package – around £600m (€698m) of it.

But workers have been told it’ll only flow as part of a wider deal to restore devolution.

Anger over that has mostly been directed at Mr Heaton-Harris, who is accused of using workers as leverage in a political arm-wrestle with the DUP.

Perhaps with that in mind, an application has been made to recall the Northern Ireland Assembly on Wednesday, the eve of the strike. If it’s accepted MLAs will gather at noon.

Under Stormont’s cross-community voting rules they can’t elect a speaker without the DUP. But a series of politicians will seek to lay the blame for the strike on the party’s intransigence.

What parties other than the DUP want from this week is clarity. If the talking is really over, what happens next?

Will the UK government publish at least parts of its offer to the DUP so that everyone can have a look at it?

What does any enhanced consultative role for the Irish Government look like?

Under current UK law if an assembly has not been formed by midnight Thursday, the Northern Secretary has a legal duty to call a fresh election.

No one expects him to do that, he’s amended the legislation before and is expected to do so again.

Mr Heaton-Harris will be taking Northern Ireland Questions in Westminster on Wednesday.

He may take the opportunity to flesh out his plans.

For now it looks like Northern Ireland will stagger on much as it has in the two years since Stormont collapsed.

The DUP has said it wants back in, once it assesses that the conditions are right.

For them Northern Ireland is economically and constitutionally cut off by the Windsor Framework from the rest of the UK.

When they return to Stormont they’ll want to say it was done on their own terms, not under pressure from striking workers or in response to a cash offer.

A complicating factor is a UK general election, which is due in the second half of this year, but could come earlier.

The DUP wants to avoid a split over a return to Stormont. It’s an additional consideration in a seemingly endless calculation.

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