Westminster to set Northern Ireland budget as local parties remain deadlocked

By on 07/11/2017
James Brockenshire, secretary of state for Northern Ireland (Image courtesy: Jay Allen/Crown Copyright/CC).

The British government is drawing up a budget for Northern Ireland, after the province’s two main parties failed to agree a power-sharing deal before the expiry of a deadline set out in legislation.

Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire announced the budget bill, which is due to be presented to the Westminster Parliament in mid-November, in a statement to MPs on Thursday – though he insisted that it was not a return to direct rule.

Northern Ireland has been run by civil servants since March, when the main parties failed to form a devolved government following elections triggered by a scandal over a green energy scheme.

After months of talks between the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein over a power-sharing deal, Brokenshire set a final deadline of Monday 30 October for agreeing a devolved government. This, he said, was the latest time that an administration could be formed with a chance of setting a budget by the end of November, as required by the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

The minister told MPs on Thursday that he expected the budget bill “to be considered in this House shortly after the November recess”, which ends on Monday 13 November, emphasising that the bill “would deal only with the current financial year”.

“It would incorporate figures provided by the Northern Ireland Civil Service reflecting their assessment of the outgoing priorities of the previous executive. It would not set out any spending decisions by me or the government,” he said.

“Subject to Parliamentary approval, this bill would give the Northern Ireland Civil Service certainty to plan for the rest of this financial year by giving the necessary legal authority to spend to existing plans.

“I also want to be clear that passing a budget in Westminster does not mean a move to direct rule, any more than the passing of legislation by this house to set a regional rate did in April. Furthermore, it… is not an obstacle to continued political negotiations and the government will continue to work with the parties with that intent.”

However, Nigel Dodds, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) at Westminster, called for an imminent return to direct rule, as reported by Belfast’s The News Letter.

“We cannot allow the drift to continue,” he said. “At some point in the very near future, we will need to have ministers. If they are not Northern Ireland Executive ministers – we and other parties want them to be, but Sinn Fein is blocking that – they will have to be ministers from here.

“They will have to take decisions, because we cannot allow the economy or Northern Ireland to drift. We will work with them in this place to ensure that the good governance of Northern Ireland continues, alongside Northern Ireland politicians in a consultative role back home at Stormont.”

The DUP is in a ‘confidence and supply agreement’ with Britain’s Conservative Party at Westminster, without which the Tory government would fall. Sinn Fein does not take up its seats at Westminster.

Brokenshire said he will also take independent advice and “reflect carefully” on the issue of salaries for members of the Northern Ireland Assembly . “This is a devolved matter and I cannot intervene without primary legislation in Westminster,” he said.

Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) continue to receive their full £49,500 annual      salaries, despite the Stormont assembly having been closed since the government collapsed in January.

About Liz Heron

Liz Heron is a journalist based in London, who specialises in international news. She worked on daily newspapers for 16 years, reporting extensively on both general news and education. She was Education Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and has contributed to a wide range of British media including The Independent, The Guardian and the BBC.

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