Ministers to meet Treasury officials after budget failure

Chris Ratcliffe/PA Wire
Chris Ratcliffe/PA Wire

Northern Ireland’s power-sharing ministers are to meet Treasury officials next week after failing to agree a budget for public spending.

Money will run out by the end of July and the DUP is warning of massive cuts to health and extended waiting lists for care as part of a £600 million financial black hole it blames on nationalist irresponsibility.

Sinn Fein has called for a united front for talks with Prime Minister David Cameron in an effort to lever more money for the crisis-stricken administration in Belfast, and argues Treasury plans for further austerity and cuts to benefits should be opposed.

Relations between the two largest parties at Stormont reached a new low this week after the devolved assembly failed to pass welfare reform legislation - putting the future of the administration in jeopardy.

Senior Ulster Unionist Danny Kennedy said: “If there is no budget in the current situation and the departments stumble on, most will run out of money by, at the very latest, late July and at that point there is a very real financial crisis.”

Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s finance minister, said she would not be moving the budget for this year because there was no agreed budgetary position.

“I have already sought a meeting with the Treasury next week to discuss the ways forward in relation to what is a very, very serious situation.

“I will be meeting with them to discuss the place that we find ourselves in and to see if they have any solutions, any ways forward.”

The crisis was precipitated earlier this week when Sinn Fein and the nationalist SDLP opposed welfare reform legislation at Stormont.

It was part of the five-party Stormont House Agreement signed before Christmas between members of the devolved administration and the British and Irish governments.

Sinn Fein argued that more should be done to mitigate cuts it claims would hurt the most vulnerable like the disabled. The DUP claimed it was the best deal possible in the circumstances and accused nationalists of backtracking on pre-Christmas commitments.

The largest unionist party has also called on Westminster to take back welfare powers to break the impasse or warned a civil servant could have to take over public finances.

Sinn Fein education minister John O’Dowd said: “The crisis we are immediately in is not the making of the (Stormont ministerial) Executive.

“Responsibility lies with the Westminster Government, with the British Government, and their austerity over these last five years has left the Executive in a very difficult position in terms of how it protects public spending and public services.”

Ministers met at Stormont to try to resolve the impasse as part of a regular “cabinet” meeting. The mood was described as varying from denial to acrimony.

David Ford, leader of the cross-community Alliance Party, said the get together had done nothing to resolve immediate and urgent problems for Northern Ireland.

He added discussions may take place with devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales, which have voiced disquiet about Conservative spending plans.

Mr Ford added: “It is very difficult to see at the present time how we resolve issues around welfare and budget for this year within the time that is available. That could imply we need to see Westminster resolving some of the issues for us.”

Regional development minister Mr Kennedy warned of financial and political paralysis.

He said: “It will be a huge mistake if some of the parties were to sit and wait on their hands until the Chancellor’s statement in July. That is six weeks away. There is a very real crisis.”

The Ulster Unionist veteran warned there was a risk of a dangerous vacuum that “no responsible government could or should tolerate”.

Sinn Fein deputy first minister Martin McGuinness met Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers and said any effort by the British Government to take back welfare powers would be a mistake and would be unacceptable.

“I also told the British Secretary of State that Sinn Fein would not accept unelected civil servants setting the budgets for our Executive departments.”