Growing pressure on DUP to renominate a first minister to release budget funds

Sinn Fein Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill described ‘a very forthright and very robust exchange’ at a meeting of party leaders on Thursday.

David Young
Thursday 10 March 2022 15:44
Michelle O’Neill and Conor Murphy (Rebecca Black/PA)
Michelle O’Neill and Conor Murphy (Rebecca Black/PA)

The DUP is coming under increasing pressure to nominate a first minister to enable the Stormont Executive to meet to agree a budget and release an additional £300 million in funding.

Sinn Fein Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill insisted this was the only way to get past the Budget impasse.

Speaking at Belfast City Hall following a virtual meeting of the party leaders, Ms O’Neill described “a very forthright and very robust exchange”.

She said the party leaders are to meet again on Friday.

“The party leaders’ meeting happened this morning and it was a very forthright and a very robust exchange,” she said.

“It was very clear that every other party leader wants the Executive up and running. It is the only way in which we can distribute financial aid to support people through the cost-of-living crisis, it is the only mechanism in which we can agree a three-year budget, a budget that would have prioritised health, a budget that would have made a difference to people in terms of the cost-of-living crisis.

“We can’t get past go in terms of supporting people until the DUP nominate again to the Executive. And that was the very clear message that Jeffrey Donaldson heard from all the other party leaders today.

“We need to do the business, we need to be in the Executive. I stand ready to be in the Executive. Conor Murphy, the Finance Minister, stands ready to be in that Executive today to make these decisions.”

Mr Murphy has insisted a budget cannot be struck without an executive in place, meaning an additional £300 million allocated to the administration for the coming financial year cannot be accessed.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP has insisted there are alternative ways to release the money (PA)

In the absence of an agreed budget, departments will have to rely on emergency arrangements to keep day-to-day services running in the 2022/23 financial year.

The impasse over the budget comes amid mounting cost-of-living pressures in Northern Ireland.

The Executive imploded last month when the DUP’s Paul Givan resigned as first minister in protest at Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol. The move automatically removed Ms O’Neill from her post as deputy first minister.

Other ministers remain in post in shadow formats but the wider administration cannot meet or take significant decisions.

Mr Murphy this week received legal advice from Northern Ireland Attorney General Brenda King that said he does not have the power to bring a budget to the Assembly in the absence of an executive.

It is understood he earlier received similar advice from the Departmental Solicitor’s Office.

Paul Givan (Peter Morrison/PA)

The advice centres on the legal interpretation of Section 64 of the 1998 Northern Ireland Act, which says a finance minister can only lay a budget before the Assembly once it has been agreed by the Executive.

The DUP has insisted there are alternative ways to pass a budget without an executive being in place.

Ahead of Thursday’s party leaders’ meeting, the SDLP proposed emergency measures to access the £300 million.

It said its representatives met legal clerks in the Assembly and Westminster to discuss what powers are available to bring forward emergency legislation to help people with spiralling energy costs.

SDLP MLA Mark H Durkan has started work in the Assembly to explore whether an accelerated Private Member’s Bill could be used to release funds.

At Westminster, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood engaged with Secretary of State Brandon Lewis to assess whether a UK Government intervention could help to resolve the issue.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood (PA)

Mr Eastwood is to make a formal proposal at the meeting of the party leaders.

“It is incumbent on all of us, whether in the Assembly or at Westminster, to now work collectively to explore what can be done to help people now,” he said.

“We cannot sit idly by and wait for this crisis to consume families here.

“If legal advice is stopping the Finance Minister from spending this money, then we need to find another way to get this money out fast.”

Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie told the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster programme that the DUP should renominate a first minister to allow the budget to pass.

He said: “I would plead with Sir Jeffrey, even in a limited capacity, to renominate so that we could have a budget and then, if he so wishes, to collapse it again.

“But we never thought collapsing the Executive was the right thing to do in the first place.

“We need a budget and we need a budget so we can have the funds to be able to support people here in Northern Ireland with the huge cost-of-living crisis.”

DUP Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots said money could be handed out on the basis of last year’s budget.

He told the BBC: “Conor Murphy’s budget can’t be passed so you go back to last year’s budget and spending could be based upon last year’s budget and the departments be awarded funding.”

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