Friday 18 October 2019

1000 days without government: Stormont’s shutdown has cost taxpayers over €100m, says economist

Stormont. Stock picture
Stormont. Stock picture

Suzanne Breen

Stormont has cost taxpayers almost €113m (£100m) to run in the 1,000 days since devolution has been suspended, a leading economist said last night.

Dr Esmond Birnie said that £3m a month was being spent on Assembly members' wages, expenses, and the operational costs of running the building and other staff.

MLAs were on full pay until last November when their salaries were reduced by 15pc.

A further cut has brought them down to £35,888.

But pressure will mount on the Government to take further action to save public funds as Northern Ireland approaches 1,000 days without devolution on Sunday.

The Assembly collapsed in January 2017 when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister as the cash-for-ash scandal enveloped Stormont. The NI government has refused to introduce direct rule due to opposition from Dublin and nationalist parties.

Talks to restore power-sharing have repeatedly failed and the current round - which began after the murder of journalist Lyra McKee in April - have stagnated.

An Irish Language Act remains the biggest stumbling block to progress.

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said the DUP and Sinn Fein were incapable of sharing power. "Their toxic mixture of arrogance, disrespect and incompetence has led the country to where it is today," he said.

"Our people are expected to languish on waiting lists which would cause uproar in other parts of the UK. People are dying because they haven't been seen and health workers are stretched to breaking point.

"Even the Permanent Secretary at the Department of Health has warned that the health service is 'heading over the cliff edge'."

Mr Swann continued: "We and other parties were asked to give the DUP and Sinn Fein 'space' while they continued their talks and they haven't delivered. It's time for a different approach and return to the basics of the Belfast Agreement including building trust and mutual respect."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said it was disgraceful that power-sharing was suspended while people were dying on hospital waiting lists and families faced extreme poverty when welfare mitigation ran out.

"The cold truth is that we are no closer to Irish language legislation now than we were three years ago," he said.

"We are facing a national emergency on this island as a no-deal Brexit draws nearer. We are on the brink of direct rule at the hands of a Tory/DUP government that doesn't care about the needs of people here."

He said the petition of concern should be suspended for the lifetime of the current Assembly.

"Let's have a democratic vote on the floor of the Assembly on Irish language, on welfare mitigations, on equal marriage and on abortion legislation," he said.

"We were elected to make decisions, but too often we're making excuses. It's time to get back to work," he added.

Alliance leader Naomi Long MEP said that while talks to restore Stormont hadn't been officially suspended, they were dormant and their momentum had long gone. "It is shameful we are reaching 1,000 days without a government," she said.

"Over the last almost three years, we have seen the already often fractious relationship between the two biggest parties become even further damaged due to lack of respect, bad attitudes and a seeming unwillingness to resolve the issues on the table."

But the Alliance leader insisted that the problems preventing the restoration of devolution weren't insurmountable. She repeated her party's call for an independent mediator to chair the talks.

Sinn Fein MP Michelle Gildernew said there currently was no talks process due to "the destructive effects of Brexit and the Tory/DUP axis".

She said: "The British Government's proposal of a unionist veto in the Brexit context is totally unacceptable and makes political progress even more difficult.

"If the institutions are to be re-established on a durable basis, the issues of equality, rights, integrity and respect which caused the collapse of the Assembly must be addressed and resolved."

DUP MP Paul Girvan said: "For almost 1,000 days Sinn Fein has blocked the formation of a Northern Ireland Executive. No other party collapsed Stormont - only Sinn Fein.

"It is Sinn Fein who chose to prioritise the demands of Irish language fundamentalists at the expense of every child's education, every hospital patient, every business and every person in Northern Ireland."

Belfast Telegraph

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