The man who signed the DUP-Conservative agreement has said that the £1 billion which it secured for Northern Ireland should begin flowing by the end of this year.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the party’s chief whip at Westminster, dismissed suggestions that the funding could be on hold, saying that he expects formal Parliamentary authorisation for the spending to come next month.
Sir Jeffrey said that the exact timetable was not yet known “because the House of Commons operates week to week and we get one week’s notice [of business]” but that he had no concerns about the money being paid as promised.
However, if some or all of the money does not come to Northern Ireland, the Lagan Valley MP said that it would end the DUP’s agreement to support the government in confidence and supply votes, which effectively sustains Theresa May in power.
Under the headline, “Theresa May’s £1bn deal suspended as Northern Ireland talks falter”, the Financial Times reported at the weekend that “London will hold back on the £1bn promised by Theresa May to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) as it moves to impose a budget on Northern Ireland”.
The article said that James Brokenshire’s proposed direct rule budget for Stormont – which is poised to be introduced at Westminster next week unless there is a sudden deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein to re-enter government together – did not include the £1 billion and was essentially the budget proposed prior to the agreement.
However, Sir Jeffrey dismissed the suggestion that the £1 billion had been suspended as “fake news”.
He told the News Letter that if Stormont cannot be resurrected then the secretary of state will introduce a budget as a “first step” and then “later in November there will be another appropriations order or bill to get Parliamentary approval for the transfer of the additional monies that we secured under the confidence and supply agreement”.
He said that once an appropriations bill has passed Parliamentary scrutiny the money should start to flow “fairly soon thereafter”. When asked if we should expect to see the money starting to flow by the end of this year, he said: “I think we should, yes.”
Asked to set out the consequences of the money never coming, Sir Jeffrey said that the government had made clear when the agreement was signed “that this money would be transferred regardless of whether there was devolution ... so we’re not anticipating that there will be any problem with this at all”.
He said that there had been “no indication from any government source of anything other than an honouring of their commitment because clearly this is an integral part of the agreement and as the government themselves have said, any default on that agreement would obviously bring it to an end”.
At the time of the agreement, the Conservatives said in a statement that “if despite our collective efforts it proves impossible to re-establish the Executive, the Conservative Party, in signing the agreement, has recognised the case for higher funding for Northern Ireland and the agreement provides a mechanism in the form of the consultative committee by which both parties can agree the funding Northern Ireland needs”.
When asked if he feared any ambiguity by the use of the phrase “higher funding” rather than specifying the £1 billion, Sir Jeffrey said: “No. None whatsoever. That’s why the sums are spelt out in the agreement itself. As I’ve said, any default on the agreement would end it.”
A Conservative spokesman pointed to the party’s past statement that if devolution could not be restored “we have recognised ... the need for additional funding”.
It may be politically attractive to the DUP for Mr Brokenshire to proceed with the budget as it would have stood prior to their deal with the Tories and then, as a separate process, set out how the money secured by the DUP will take the edge off some of the difficult financial decisions in the original budget.
The failure of the last finance minister, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, to bring forward a budget before Sinn Fein collapsed Stormont in January has meant that there has been no budget for devolved spending since April.
Senior civil servants have been operating under emergency legislation which allows them to keep spending up to 95% of last year’s budget.
However, civil servants have told the government that they will soon be running out of money if a proper budget is not put in place.