Stormont parties called to talks on North’s finances in absence of executive

Monday’s talks will be first round-table discussion between parties in a number of months

The Northern Secretary will host round-table talks to the North’s five main political parties on Monday.

Sinn Féin, the DUP, Alliance, Ulster Unionists and SDLP have all been invited to Hillsborough Castle by Chris Heaton-Harris to discuss Northern Ireland’s finances.

It is the first round-table discussion between the parties in a number of months. Northern Ireland has been without a functioning assembly or executive for more than 18 months due to the ongoing DUP boycott over post-Brexit trading arrangements.

It is also facing significant financial pressures with a £300 million budgetary “black hole” and hundreds of millions of pounds of additional funding needed to maintain public services and settle public sector pay disputes which have led to widespread strike action.


Stormont departments have been asked to launch public consultations on ways to raise additional revenue, and on Thursday a consultation was launched on introducing water and sewage charges.

A financial package will be a key element of any deal to restore powersharing government at Stormont, and the meeting will inevitably increase speculation about a potential breakthrough.

Negotiations between the DUP and the UK government are still ongoing. Mr Heaton-Harris said last week they were in the “final, final stages”.

In a statement on Thursday evening the Sinn Féin vice-president and Northern Ireland’s First Minister designate Michelle O’Neill said her party would attend Monday’s meeting, and called for the swift restoration of the Stormont institutions.

DUP Assembly member Philip Brett said his party would “continue to stand up for households across Northern Ireland” in opposing water charges. He said the current underfunding of Northern Ireland Water was “yet another symptom of the failure by HM government to fund public services here based upon objective need”.

A spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Office said that “in the absence of an executive, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has written to the permanent secretaries of the Northern Ireland departments directing them to launch public consultations on measures for supporting budget sustainability and raising additional revenue”.

Meanwhile, the Shadow Secretary of State said political leaders in the North need to restore the Assembly in order to bring a measure of accountability back to the region’s finances.

Speaking at Irish Congress of Trade Unions event in Dundalk, Hilary Benn said it was “unsustainable” that public sector workers in the North were struggling to get pay rises at present amid widespread industrial action.

During a panel discussion at the event, staged to mark the 25th anniversary earlier this year of the Belfast Agreement, in which representatives of all Northern Ireland’s main political parties participated, there was a consensus that the North’s public services are chronically underfunded.

DUP MLA Jonathan Buckley said the need for additional funding was a central issue in his party’s negotiations with the British government over a prospective return to the Assembly.

There was repeated criticism of Mr Heaton-Harris for having declined an invitation to address the conference.

Mr Benn reiterated Labour’s commitment to repeal the British government’s “wholly inappropriate” legacy legislation if it wins the next election.

When asked, however, by an Irish National Teachers Organisation representative, who said her members had not had a pay increase in three years, whether it would substantially revise the formula currently used to calculate public expenditure in the region, he said such a decision was “way above my pay grade”.

Mr Benn said Labour would implement the Windsor Framework, the revised agreement between the UK and EU with regard to the movement of goods in and out of the region, but would do so with “sensitivity” toward the concerns of unionists.

Mr Benn’s suggestion, meanwhile, that a collective will similar to the one described by leaders in the North would be required before peace can be achieved in Israel and Palestine prompted questions that quickly turned into heated criticism from members of the audience, all union representatives.

“We’ve seen conflict before in Gaza and we’ll see it again and again until there is political leadership on the part of Israel and on the part of the Palestinians that is prepared to do what happened in Northern Ireland because there is no other way,” he said.

During the exchanges that followed, the MP, who was wearing a badge symbolising unity between the UK and Ukraine, was accused of “double standards on war crimes”.

Asked about Labour’s recent refusal to back on SNP motion at Westminster calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, Mr Benn said he would have voted for the motion had he thought it would actually lead to a ceasefire but neither side wanted one.

He said Israel had the right to “defend itself” against Hamas which was “a terrorist organisation”.

Speaking in a subsequent session, senior Siptu official Gerry McCormack said politicians who talked of Israel’s right to defend itself in the current environment were granting it “a licence to commit genocide”.

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Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone is Work Correspondent at The Irish Times