Tuesday 21 November 2017

British government to set North's budget as 'cash all gone in month'

Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire speaks to the media outside Stormont House in Belfast where he said that preparations are being made for the UK Government to impose a budget on Northern Ireland by the end of the month. Photo: PA
Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire speaks to the media outside Stormont House in Belfast where he said that preparations are being made for the UK Government to impose a budget on Northern Ireland by the end of the month. Photo: PA

Siobhan Fenton and Ed Carty

Preparations are being made for the British government to impose a budget on Northern Ireland by the end of the month, with no end in sight to the deadlock at Stormont.

Northern Ireland is "sliding towards" direct rule as a result of the latest breakdown in talks at Stormont, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has warned.

Although the Taoiseach said there "really isn't a huge gap" between Sinn Féin and the DUP, he acknowledged the situation is worrying.

British Secretary of State James Brokenshire insisted the move stopped short of direct rule, and that he would abandon the idea if the DUP and Sinn Féin could reach a deal.

But Mr Brokenshire said Northern Ireland would begin to run out of money by the end of November. "No government could simply stand by and allow that to happen," he said.

The DUP and Sinn Féin have failed to meet Mr Brokenshire's deadline for a power-sharing deal, with Stormont effectively in limbo since January.

Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Simon Coveney. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Simon Coveney. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Irish language rights and other cultural issues are major sticking points. Now there are concerns the impasse will affect the North's ability to ready itself for Brexit, with knock-on effects for the Republic.

However, it is understood that British Prime Minister Theresa May remains committed to a £1bn (€1.1bn) investment in Northern Ireland, despite the continued deadlock.

The British government is expected to stand by the controversial deal struck by the Tories in return for DUP votes at Westminster.

"The money that has been promised as part of the confidence and supply deal is for the people of Northern Ireland and we are committed to delivering on that undertaking," a source said.

Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, who was involved in the talks, said London was acting reluctantly and delaying a threatened budget as late as possible.

In statements yesterday, Mr Coveney and Mr Brokenshire also noted the importance of the Good Friday Agreement.

Mr Coveney, who visits Britain today to meet ministers including David Davis and Philip Hammond, will stress the importance of remaining flexible during Brexit negotiations to preserve "the hard-won peace" on this island.

He will also insist that any Brexit deal must keep the soft Irish Border.

Amid the fallout over the Stormont deadlock, Sinn Féin's Northern leader Michelle O'Neill said the problems had been "compounded by the Tory-DUP pact".

But DUP MP Gregory Campbell accused Sinn Féin of "rank hypocrisy" over the deadlock.

"We want devolution. Arlene Foster has led our talks team and is rightly frustrated that government is being held back by a narrow political agenda," he said.

"We received an overwhelming mandate to ensure any deal was fair. That mandate has to be respected, just as we respect the mandate of others."

The crisis has also prompted renewed calls for MLAs' pay - £49,500 (€56,422) a year - to be cut. Mr Brokenshire said he was taking advice on the issue.

Irish Independent

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