In a deeply symbolic act of direct rule, the Government last night brought before the House of Commons a budget for Stormont – but insisted that it should not be seen as a move towards the end of devolution in Northern Ireland.
Having delayed for more than nine months since Stormont fell in January, Northern Ireland Secretary of State James Brokenshire yesterday evening set a budget for Northern Ireland departments before MPs.
The Government is using emergency procedures to move the bill through Westminster in three days – a process which ought to take three weeks at Stormont.
Public services in Northern Ireland have been operating without any politically-agreed budget since the start of April and civil servants had advised the Government that they would start to run out of money in weeks if it did not step in.
Addressing a largely empty Commons chamber, Mr Brokenshire stressed that he was taking the budget to Westminster “with the utmost reluctance and only because there is no other choice available”.
And, repeatedly insisting that a direct rule budget is not direct rule per se, Mr Brokenshire made clear that he does not intend to return to the direct rule which operated during the Troubles and during previous collapses of Stormont over the last two decades, where Northern Ireland Office ministers ran Stormont departments.
That means it will still be civil servants in Belfast taking the bulk of decisions, without politicians being involved.
However, this also means some politically-contentious decisions will end up not being taken at all.
Mr Brokenshire said while it was “a Government bill, it is not a UK Government budget – it does not reflect the spending priorities of me or any other minister”.
Rather, Mr Brokenshire said the budget is wholly the work of Stormont civil servants, who had informally consulted the parties on its contents.
The bulk of the bill, for day-to-day spending by Stormont departments, is £10.6 billion – an increase from £10.2 billion.
Although Mr Brokenshire faced multiple questions from MPs concerned about aspects of the bill or the process whereby it was being brought before them, the budget received widespread support from across the chamber and passed comfortably with support from Labour , the SNP and the Lib Dems.
Today it will go before the Lords before returning to the Commons tomorrow.
However, despite what is taking place, Mr Brokenshire insisted that “at this moment, this issue remains devolved”.
On the face of it, the budget provides an increase of 5.4% for health spending in Northern Ireland, where hospital waiting lists have spiralled over recent years.
However, a report for Stormont last year found that if inflation was at 1% (it is now about 3%) the NHS would need about 6% more money each year just to stand still, due to the increased costs of an ageing population and expensive medical advances.
Education receives another 1.5%, but that is again less than the rate of inflation.
The DUP, the only Northern Ireland party which both has MPs and which takes its seats in the Commons, welcomed the development as necessary to give certainty to the public sector in Northern Ireland.
Sinn Féin had threatened that if the Government went ahead with the budget at Westminster it would consider the current phase of its talks with the DUP to be over.
However, yesterday the party appeared to strike a more restrained tone about the development, while still forcefully stating its opposition to a move towards full direct rule.
Sinn Fein’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill said of the budget going through Westminster: “This is an acknowledgement by the British Government that agreement has not been possible.”
The Irish Government went further and endorsed what London was doing, with Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney saying that because of the failure of the DUP and Sinn Féin to agree to enter power-sharing “a statutory basis for the continued funding of public services in Northern Ireland is required”.
Amid concerns about the current arrangements, DUP MP Ian Paisley asked Mr Brokenshire whom the interim head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, David Sterling, is accountable to, saying that it was “not sustainable” to allow the current situation to continue for much longer.
The North Antrim MP urged him to “urgently” move to appoint direct rule ministers, something which Mr Brokesnhire said he did not intend to do.
DUP colleague Sammy Wilson said that Sinn Féin had “no interest in devolution” if it involved difficult decisions, “and therefore his only alternative is to appoint direct rule ministers”.
Later, DUP MPs cheered as Mr Brokenshire said that the first £50m – for education and health – of the DUP-Tory £1bn deal will soon be coming to Northern Ireland after a Commons vote.
An ebullient Nigel Dodds said that showed that the deal was not dependant on Executive being in place, as some people had claimed.
He went on to tell fellow MPs that confirmation of funding was “a very significant moment in the history of this Parliament”.
The shadow Northern Ireland secretary Owen Smith told the House of Commons: “If this is not direct rule, it is getting perilously close to it.”