Despite opposing an emergency direct rule budget at Stormont, Sinn Féin has failed to propose any alternative which will stop public sector workers being laid off before Christmas if their talks with the DUP fail.
The party has warned of dire consequences if there is any move to direct rule from Westminster, something it says would “deepen the nature of the political crisis with international implications”.
The government insists that although passing a Stormont budget at Westminster would be an act of direct rule it should not be viewed as direct rule because the figures within the document will be provided by Stormont civil servants – an argument which many at Stormont has dismissed.
Those civil servants – who since April have been operating without a budget and with the legal authority to spend no more than 95% of the previous year’s budget – have warned that if they do not have the legislation in place by the end of this month they will literally start to run out of money.
Stormont mandarins have always been operating on the understanding that Westminster would step in before that point and Secretary of State James Brokenshire has publicly made clear that the government has a responsibility to ensure that such a point is never reached.
However, Sinn Féin disagrees, arguing that London should never involve itself in a devolved matter.
Yesterday the News Letter asked Sinn Féin what it proposed as an alternative if it is not prepared to see a direct rule budget, what other mechanism it would like to see to ensure that public servants are not laid off next month.
In response, other than arguing that the DUP should drop its opposition to Sinn Féin’s demands and form an Executive which could pass the budget, the party offered no other route whereby if that process fails public sector workers could keep their jobs.
Reiterating its desire to see the Executive restored “to set budgets and make decisions for local people on the basis of equality, rights and respect”, the party said that was the only way that an Executive could be “credible and sustainable”.
The party added: “The DUP’s refusal to accept a future based on rights and equality, an anti-rights position facilitated by a British government dependent on the DUP for its own survival, has prevented the restoration of an executive of locally accountable ministers.
“The DUP and the British government should end their denial of rights enjoyed by citizens everywhere else on these islands, implement previous agreements and engage in meaningful dialogue to get the institutions back up and running.
“That would enable the budget and its priorities to be set by locally appointed ministers and an executive acting as a bulwark against vicious Tory cuts, which are now supported by the DUP.”
Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann urged the government to press ahead with a direct rule budget and said that Gerry Adams should drop his “ludicrous threats” around the possibility of direct rule and added: “If the Secretary of State took Gerry Adams’ advice and decided not to legislate at Westminster for a budget for Northern Ireland, just how does Gerry Adams think we will pay for public services, public sector wages or benefits?
“He would be the first person leading the complaints that the British government was not fulfilling its obligations and was infringing the rights of local people if thousands of public sector workers were laid off because the local public sector had run out of money.”
A senior trade unionist criticised the government’s admission that it will not be consulting on the direct rule budget.
ICTU assistant general secretary Owen Reidy said that unions wanted to see devolution restored and had a consistent message for “which ever elected chamber sets the budget – Stormont or Westminster” that “public servants have endured a real terms pay cut of 8 per cent as a result of seven years of pay freezes and the pay cap”.
He added: “The idea of a budget being set for Northern Ireland with no avenue of scrutiny should be unacceptable for any NI political party. DUP MPs will have an almost unfair responsibility to ensure that their confidence and supply arrangement with this very unstable Tory government can deliver for people in NI.”
Meanwhile, the DUP’s Westminster leader has said that there needs to be full direct rule, with Tory ministers in place, “within a few short weeks” if there is no deal with Sinn Féin.
Expanding on comments which he made in the Commons on Thursday, Nigel Dodds – who this week was named ‘negotiator of the year’ by The Spectator – said that the issue was becoming increasingly urgent due to key decisions piling up at Stormont but no ministers in post to take those decisions.
He told BBC Radio Ulster’s Inside Politics programme: “I have made it very clear that we can only go on in this kind of semi-direct rule in certain areas - welfare, and now the budget - for a very short period. We need decisions taken by ministers and if those aren’t going to be Northern Ireland Executive ministers then within a few short weeks we need to move to the appointment of direct rule ministers...we have to get decisions made.”
Speaking on the same programme, aformer Sinn Féin MLA said that he believes there was considerable progress in the DUP-Sinn Féin talks and that a deal could be done within weeks.
Daithi McKay said: “I think that a lot of progress has been made and the reason that I say that is that both parties have been relatively water-tight...I don’t think it’s the end of the road by any means – there were suggestions that the DUP did not want to make a deal before their party conference and I certainly don’t think the DUP wants to make a deal on the Irish language act so Sinn Féin could parade that at their ard fheis.”
He suggested that Christmas could be the best time to make a deal when grassroots unionists are largely “disengaged”.