Northern Ireland’s executive holds ‘crunch’ budget meeting

Ministers from the mandatory coalition’s five parties will convene at Stormont Castle

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers  Photograph: David Young/PA

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers Photograph: David Young/PA

 

Stormont ministers will hold a crunch meeting today in a bid to strike a deal on a hard hitting budget ahead of a deadline tomorrow.

If the power-sharing executive fails to agree a draft 2015/16 budget before the end of the week, the UK Government has warned ministers they will forfeit a £100 million emergency loan from the Treasury.

If the loan is not secured, the administration will probably bust its annual spending limit — a move that Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers has made clear will see civil servants taking over financial decisions next year.

Ministers from the mandatory coalition’s five parties will convene at Stormont Castle in Belfast this afternoon to discuss proposals circulated by Democratic Unionist Finance Minister Simon Hamilton earlier this week.

Mr Hamilton’s plan envisages hundreds of millions of pounds being removed from certain public services.

Not all departments will lose out under his plan, with the health service in particular poised for fresh investment in front line services.

Chancellor George Osborne set the Friday deadline to agree a draft budget for next year as a condition of allowing the Executive access to the £100 million loan from the National Reserve to help ease a £220 million funding crisis in the current financial year.

With the DUP and Sinn Fein holding the majority of seats in the Executive, Mr Hamilton’s proposals will only be approved if the republican party back him.

Sinn Féin Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill last night struck a positive note on the state of the budget considerations, insisting “significant progress” had been made.

The budget talks are reaching conclusion at a time when US envoy Gary Hart is in Northern Ireland to take part in a wider initiative aimed at seeking resolution to a series of long-standing Stormont disputes.

But issues on the agenda of that UK Government-convened process — such as wrangles over flags, parades and the legacy of the past — are effectively taking a back seat until the more pressing matter of the budget is resolved.

PA