A senior DUP MLA has said that he sees little prospect of Stormont returning this year and hinted that there may be changes to the Belfast Agreement before that happens.
In evidence to the Commons’ Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on Wednesday, Simon Hamilton said that there was now a serious breakdown in trust between his party and Sinn Fein after talks to restore devolution collapsed three weeks ago.
The former Stormont finance minister’s comments are significant because he is seen as one of the DUP’s most moderate pro-devolution voices and someone who would be almost certain to return as a Stormont minister under devolution, meaning that he stands to financially lose out if Stormont does not return.
They also challenge the perception that the DUP’s MLAs are desperate to get Stormont back, for reasons of power and to save their £49,500 salaries, while the party’s MPs – who now wield unprecedented influence in Westminster – are more relaxed about what happens in Belfast.
In gloomy comments to the committee of MPs, Mr Hamilton said on behalf of his party: “I think the prospects of a return to devolution in the short-term are bleak.”
Stressing that he had “no pleasure” in stating that view, he added: “I don’t see it happening this year and perhaps even beyond.”
He accused Sinn Fein of operating a “scorched earth policy” in recent weeks since the talks collapsed, and accused Sinn Fein of “intransigence” in “drawing very deep red lines”, including the demand for an Irish language act before returning to Stormont.
Significant evidence has emerged that the DUP’s negotiators – who included Mr Hamilton – were in deep discussions with Sinn Fein about the shape of that legislation but DUP leader Arlene Foster pulled the plug on the talks amid significant pressure from grassroots unionists.
Mr Hamilton accused Sinn Fein of “selective leaking” in the wake of that talks breakdown, something which he said “does not fill me with any confidence that Sinn Fein is serious about getting devolution back up and running again”.
He insisted that his party is ideologically committed to devolution but said that in the absence of Stormont there was an urgent need for direct rule decisions because that would be “better than having no decisions taken at all” in areas such as health and education.
Sinn Fein MP Conor Murphy responded that Mr Hamilton’s comments show that the DUP has “checked out” of devolution. He called for the British and Irish governments to convene an ‘intergovernmental conference’ – a formal structure in which they can consult each other about Northern Ireland.
Mr Hamilton also set out arguments to reform the Belfast Agreement, although he was vague about what precisely the DUP wants to see changed.
The Strangford MLA said that “it is only natural, particularly at the 20-year juncture, that we should be looking for change” to the Stormont structures. However, significantly for a party which once campaigned against mandatory power-sharing, he stressed that “that doesn’t mean that the principles of the agreement have diluted in any way”.
He said: “A decision has been taken, almost collectively across society in Northern Ireland, that we want to fight our battles politically so that the corridors of Stormont are where we are having the arguments and not having those arguments out on the street; that we should be sharing power in Northern Ireland between nationalists and republicans and unionists.”