Stormont ministers in new talks to break deadlock on coronavirus restrictions

Executive ministers are set for fresh discussions in a bid to break the deadlock over new coronavirus restrictions for Northern Ireland.

The fourth meeting in four days will convene on Thursday afternoon, hours after it emerged that businesses had been given the wrong deadline for the end of the current circuit-break lockdown.

The Department of Health said it had received “revised legal advice” that regulations forcing the closure of many hospitality businesses expires at midnight on Friday, 24 hours later than the department had previously understood.

The development has added to the frustration of business owners already angry at the lack of clarity over whether they will be able to reopen when the restrictions expire.

ECONOMY Furlough
ECONOMY Furlough

Ministers are at loggerheads, with three proposals on the executive’s next pandemic response being voted down during fractious exchanges within the powersharing administration.

Discussions are now focused on a fresh plan from Alliance Party leader Naomi Long which could provide a compromise solution.

The DUP has used a contentious voting mechanism to veto two proposals from Ulster Unionist health minister Robin Swann to extend the circuit-break measures – one proposed a two-week extension, the other a single week.

The other four Stormont parties supported those extensions, and also voted down alternative proposals tabled by DUP economy minister Diane Dodds that would have seen a partial reopening of the hospitality sector.

Naomi Long
Naomi Long

Mrs Long has tabled a hybrid proposal that fused Mr Swann’s one-week extension with Mrs Dodds’s measures being introduced gradually afterwards.

Hotelier Bill Wolsey is among scores of business owners who have voiced frustration.

“Our politicians are a bit like track and trace – not fit for purpose,” he told the PA news agency.

“How can I be sitting here and not knowing if I am able to open tomorrow? How do we get to this state?”

On Thursday morning, DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson insisted consensus could be found.

“We will look very carefully at what Naomi Long is proposing – and Diane Dodds is working with Naomi and other ministers to bring forward a proposal we hope will achieve the consensus that is required,” he told the BBC.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson

“I hope a decision can be made, I understand the frustration.

“We recognise time is of the essence here – we do want to get a decision made and we will redouble our efforts. Where there is a will, there is a way.”

Divisions at the head of the powersharing administration have been laid bare over recent days as ministers struggle to agree new pandemic response measures.

The DUP vetoed Mr Swann’s proposals using a voting mechanism that means any move needs the backing of a majority of nationalist and a majority of unionist executive members.

It left the DUP in the unusual position of using cross-community provisions against proposals tabled by a fellow unionist.

On Thursday morning, Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill told RTE that anything less than a two-week extension would go against public health advice.

Michelle O’Neill
Michelle O’Neill

She said: “What is happening at this moment in time is that all the other parties in the executive – the Ulster Unionist Party, the Alliance Party, the SDLP and Sinn Fein – are all together speaking with one voice, supporting the health teams, and what we have is the DUP using a cross-community veto to block the democratic will of the rest of the executive.”

Later on Thursday, the Department of Health confirmed the current circuit-break regulations expire at midnight on Friday, not midnight on Thursday.

The department clarified the legal position around the closure of hospitality businesses and close contact services after consultation with the Departmental Solicitor’s Office.

A Department of Health spokesman said: “Executive ministers last night received revised legal advice that the deadline for the current restrictions on hospitality and close contact businesses is midnight on Friday November 13, and not tonight.”

It means businesses have been working to the wrong timeline around when the circuit-break would end. Some have already taken bookings for Friday.