Budget crisis increases urgency for return of Stormont Assembly – Martin

The Tanaiste met political parties in Belfast.

David Young
Wednesday 07 June 2023 18:00 BST
Tanaiste Micheal Martin during a press conference in the Irish Secretariat in Belfast, after meeting with some of Stormont’s main political parties (Liam McBurney/PA)
Tanaiste Micheal Martin during a press conference in the Irish Secretariat in Belfast, after meeting with some of Stormont’s main political parties (Liam McBurney/PA) (PA Wire)

A budget crisis in Northern Ireland means there needs to be a sense of urgency in restoring the powersharing institutions at Stormont, Tanaiste Micheal Martin has said.

However, he refused to say whether he is optimistic about the return of the Assembly after meetings with political parties in Belfast.

Sinn Fein MLA Conor Murphy said the UK and Irish governments must act to ensure the powersharing deadlock does not continue over the summer, while DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said there has to be respect for the position of unionists.

I’m heartened by the fact that all parties want the Executive back

Micheal Martin

The DUP is blocking the devolved institutions in Belfast in protest at post-Brexit trading arrangements, and the party has insisted it will not return to Stormont until it secures further legislative assurances from the UK Government around sovereignty and trade.

Senior civil servants are currently running public services in the region in the absence of devolution.

They have estimated that Stormont departments need hundreds of millions of pounds in extra funding to maintain public services at their current level this year.

Hundreds of millions more would be needed to settle a series of public sector pay disputes in the region.

Mr Martin held face-to-face meetings with Sinn Fein, the Alliance Party and the Ulster Unionists in a Belfast hotel while phone call discussions were scheduled with the DUP and SDLP.

It was his first visit since the local government elections saw Sinn Fein emerge as the largest party in councils for the first time.

At a press conference after the meetings, Mr Martin said it was very clear from all the parties that there is a “genuine desire to get the Executive back up and running”.

He added: “What was clear from our discussions today was the degree to which the situation has been compounded now by the budgetary situation – that came up in all of our discussions, that the situation is very serious from a financial perspective and the impact on public services and the impact that that is having on the people.

“And any delay in restoring the Executive will make the challenge even greater subsequently.

“That is why the need to move quickly and we want that sense of urgency transferred into the restoration of the Executive and the Assembly.

“I’m heartened by the fact that all parties want the Executive back, I’ve had many conversations with Jeffrey (Donaldson) and with the DUP and with the other parties over the last two years, so until I see things happening I’m not going to confirm whether I’m optimistic or hopeful or not.

“I think he (Sir Jeffrey) was fairly frank in terms of what he is looking for in terms of assurances… but he needs to clarify that with precision for it to be addressed without in any way undermining the fundamental architecture of the Good Friday Agreement.

“But I do believe that everybody is possessed now of the necessity to do something urgently and also that there is a window of opportunity now in the aftermath of the local elections that, in my view, should facilitate a resumption of the Executive and the Assembly.”

Mr Murphy said the British and Irish governments are “not spectators” and cannot allow the political drift to continue.

He added: “The idea that we can somehow sit on our hands and the DUP can sail through July 12 and then go off on their holidays, while they’re being paid to work with the rest of us to try and get solutions to these problems, it’s just not acceptable to us.

“And we’ve told both governments when we’ve met them: it’s not acceptable. It should not be acceptable to them either. We’re in a crisis here and now and we can’t afford for drift to continue on.”

Sir Jeffrey said his party wanted a constructive relationship with the Irish Government.

He added: “It is regrettable that for long periods Dublin ignored the views of unionists with regard to the NI Protocol and failed to recognise that post-Brexit arrangements required the support of unionists as well as nationalists.

“We have engaged constructively with key stakeholders in London, Dublin, Brussels and Washington and emphasised that for Northern Ireland to move forward, there must be respect for unionists and nationalists.”

Alliance MLA Andrew Muir warned that public services and communities in Northern Ireland are facing a “perfect storm” as the region’s mounting financial problems are compounded by the Stormont impasse.

“What public services, communities and families are enduring is a perfect storm,” Mr Muir said after meeting the Tanaiste.

“The forecast ahead is quite serious, so time is not on our side here for the restoration of devolution.

“Time is running out for that. We have a developing situation in relation to public services in terms of a £1 billion overspend.

“We made it very clear that there’s a need for the DUP to get back into government, but also for reform of the institutions, so we can stop this constant cycle of crisis and collapse.”

Mr Muir said the other Stormont parties are in the dark over when the DUP intends to return to powersharing.

Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie described his meeting with Mr Martin as a “catch-up” on the main issues at Stormont.

“We spoke about the public finances and the real difficult position that we have in regards to that,” he said.

“And the Tanaiste was clear that the Irish Government would still adhere to their commitments to help once the Executive was up and running with things like the A5 and other infrastructure projects.”

The Tanaiste also met the East Belfast GAA, an organisation which has faced threats since forming, including a security alert at grounds it uses for practise last months.

Mr Martin described the club as pioneering, bringing Gaelic games to east Belfast.

Mr Martin finished his day with a visit to the Museum of Orange Heritage in east Belfast to learn more about the work of the Orange Order.

He met the Orange Order’s Grand Secretary Mervyn Gibson and Deputy Grand Master Harold Henning for a tour of the centre.

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