Public elected us to do a job, finance minister tells nationalists

A budget must be set, says Finance Minister Arlene Foster
A budget must be set, says Finance Minister Arlene Foster

A renewed appeal has been made to the SDLP and Sinn Fein ahead of a fresh draft budget being presented on Wednesday.

DUP finance minister Arlene Foster reminded the two parties that the Northern Irish public had “elected us to do a job”, and that this includes being able to balance the books.

She hopes that they would give her planned budget a “fair wind”, but added that no further concessions are on the table when it comes to planned changes to the welfare system – changes which nationalists and republicans have strongly contested.

She said that after the proposed spending plan for the Province (covering a period up to April 2016) is presented to Stormont’s finance committee, it will be brought to the Assembly next week for approval or rejection.

“My message is that the people of Northern Ireland elected us to do a job,” she said last night.

“Part of that job is to set a budget every year. And that’s what we must do. We must take our responsibilities seriously and do just that.”

Her objective is to make sure that a budget is agreed and in place by July 21, when the House of Commons breaks for summer recess.

She would offer no indication yesterday which departments look set to take the harshest cuts in the upcoming budget.

Sinn Fein and the SDLP last month deepened the Province’s financial crisis by refusing to agree the Welfare Reform Bill in the Assembly.

It contained changes to the benefits system which are akin to those already in place in the mainland UK, except with some mitigating measures tailored specially for the Province (such as a guarantee that no current claimants would lose out on cash for a period of three years).

The failure to agree these changes has resulted in tough penalties being levied against Northern Ireland by Westminster, amounting to a loss of £9.5m per month to the Province’s public spending budget – forcing its already-stretched finances into even worse trouble.

A budget had been agreed around the start of the year, as well as a package of political measures on parading, flags and the Troubles known as the Stormont House Agreement.

But these were dependent on striking some kind of deal on welfare reform.

This new draft budget will be based on an expectation that welfare reform will either be agreed by the SDLP and Sinn Fein, or simply forced into place directly by Westminster.

“It’s an either-or situation,” she said.

Asked if the SDLP and Sinn Fein may simply scupper the budget when it comes to the floor of the Assembly by using a Petition of Concern (which ensures that any Bill will fail unless it has a measure of cross-community support), she said: “I don’t know if that is the case or not. That’s a matter for them.

“We have to come up with solutions. They have not brought any solutions forward to the current problem that we’re in.

“We’re a responsible party of government, so we have to try and find solutions, which is why we’re bringing forward the budget.”

She said that if the budget is not agreed then there is a chance that a senior civil servant will just be given the reigns of the public’s spending, taking the power away from elected politicians.

When it was put to her this scenario is similar to what had previously happened in chronically-mismanaged economies like Greece and Italy (where financial crises meant control of the countries’ spending was handed to unelected figures), she said: “Hopefully we’ll not get to there. I would like to think we won’t.”

The DUP had previously said that they would discuss the handing back of welfare reform powers from Northern Ireland directly to the government in London.

A meeting was held last week with the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) about this.

The NIO said that there are no planned talks about the budget crisis scheduled in for today, and at time of writing it is believed there are no other scheduled talks on the matter set for this week.