Britain to publish budget for Northern Ireland on Monday

North without Executive since January and departments are close to running out of cash

Northern Ireland  has been without a functioning power-sharing Executive and Assembly since it was collapsed in January.  Photograph: AFP

Northern Ireland has been without a functioning power-sharing Executive and Assembly since it was collapsed in January. Photograph: AFP

 

The British government is to bring forward legislation for a budget for Northern Ireland on Monday in the absence of a deal between the DUP and Sinn Féin.

The North has been without a functioning power-sharing Executive and Assembly since it was collapsed in January by the late former deputy first minister Martin McGuinness over the DUP’s handling of a botched green energy scheme and other matters.

Without elected ministers in place, the Northern Ireland Civil Service has been working to an indicative budget with senior civil servants in charge of departments while political talks aimed at forming a government continued.

Officials said they would start to run out of money by the end of November if a budget was not in place.

Civil servants have had access to 95 per cent of the North’s block grant from Westminster, so the budget this week is largely a paper exercise that will mean the final five per cent will be released to spend.

While the money will allow departments to operate and public services continue to be provided, the absence of ministers means there is nobody in place to take important decisions on reforming healthcare, the economy and other matters.

Secretary of State James Brokenshire has repeatedly warned Northern Ireland is on a “glide path” to what he described as “greater UK government intervention” but said the processing of a budget from Westminster this week does not constitute direct rule.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood disagrees.

He said the “failure of the DUP and Sinn Féin is set to deliver Direct Rule on the 13th of November” and called on the British and Irish governments to map out a timetable for inclusive multi-party talks between now and Christmas.

While Mr Eastwood believes a Northern Ireland budget passed in Westminster is direct rule, others would argue it is not until direct rule ministers are appointed and making decisions.

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds recently called for direct rule ministers to run Northern Ireland “within weeks”.

Mr Dodds said in the absence of a deal with Sinn Féin, direct rule ministers should make decisions in conjunction with Stormont parties.

After months of missed deadlines and discussions about the Irish language, marriage equality, legacy issues funding and other topics, Stormont talks stalled at the start of November.

While the DUP and Sinn Féin have signalled a willingness to engage there have been no formal negotiations in recent days.

On Friday night British prime minister Theresa May spoke to DUP and Sinn Féin leaders by telephone to urge them to reach agreement.

A Downing Street spokeswoman said Ms May made clear to the parties that a budget was “absolutely not an indication of direct rule”.

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams suggested the British government’s priority at this time was “to sustain its political pact with the DUP”.

Mr Adams told Ms May “direct rule was not an option and that she must look to the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement for the establishment of an intergovernmental conference involving the Irish and British governments”.

Following the Westminster election in June the DUP has been propping up a weakened Conservative government through a confidence and supply agreement.

Ms May agreed a £1 billion deal for extra funding for Northern Ireland in exchange for DUP support during key votes in the House of Commons.

Since the summer both the DUP and the Conservative Party has said the release of funding is not dependent on a deal at Stormont.

There has been much speculation about why the money has not arrived yet but it’s thought British Chancellor Philip Hammond could outline the plans for this in his budget speech on November 22nd.