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Michelle O'Neill: Unacceptable for Tory and DUP MPs to make funding decisions for north

Sinn Féin's leader in the north, Michelle O'Neill, has warned there will no compromise on key demands for the restoration of a Stormont executive. Picture by Mal McCann

SINN Féin's Michelle O'Neill has said it would be unacceptable for a group of Tory and DUP MPs to decide where public funds are to be spent in the north.

Ms O'Neill insisted that only a restored Stormont executive can allocate the £1 billion secured by the DUP as part of a 'confidence and supply' deal to support Theresa May's government.

Her comments come amid uncertainty about the role of the so-called consultative committee referenced in last month's agreement between the two parties.

Initially, it was said that the committee would only "discuss and agree the handling of legislation".

However, a statement from Tory headquarters also described it as a "mechanism" by which both the Conservatives and DUP "can agree the funding Northern Ireland needs".

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has voiced fears that the committee may act like an "interim executive" and called on Secretary of State James Brokenshire to "urgently clarify" its role.

Sinn Féin's northern leader told The Irish News yesterday that she is similarly unclear what the consultative committee's remit is – and believes the Tories and DUP aren't entirely sure themselves.

"We've had James Brokenshire making a statement in relation to it, then the Tory party making a statement in relation to it, we saw Sammy Wilson coming out last week also calling for clarity on it and he also called the Tories confused – so I think they (the Conservatives) don't actually understand what this committee is going to do," Ms O'Neill said.

However, the Mid-Ulster MLA said she would not accept a committee of Tory and DUP MPs making decisions about how funds should be spent in the north.

"One thing I'm very clear on – it'll be executive ministers here who'll be taking decisions where that money will be spent," she said.

"The democratic accountability needs to happen here."

Ms O'Neill said the money secured by the DUP was welcome but claimed that the Conservative government had been underfunding public services.

"You have to look at everything in context – since the Tories came to power they have robbed public services here to the tune of more than £1 billion," she said.

"However, it would be churlish of me not to say that we welcome any money that's going to be invested in public services."

The Sinn Féin northern leader, who this week has served six months in the role, said she was still working to restore the executive by meeting other party leaders, even though official negotiations are not due to resume until September.

Ms O'Neill said the talks had concluded last month without a breakthrough because "the DUP failed to deliver and unfortunately the British government pandered to the DUP".

"We came at the talks with the right approach by trying to find a way forward, because we believe in the institutions, we believe in making the executive work – but it has to work on a sustainable basis," she said.

The former health and agriculture minister said "a small number of very key issues" were outstanding but there could be a deal if the DUP "delivered on outstanding issues", such as same-sex marriage and an Irish language act.

"These are not just Sinn Féin asks – they are asks of wider society that the other parties agreed with us," she said.

"If we can get those things resolved then there's no reason why we can't get an executive up-and-running at some stage in the near future."

The Sinn Féin northern leader added that her party was standing by its position of not accepting Arlene Foster's nomination as first minister before the public inquiry into the botched Renewable Heat Incentive is complete.

Nevertheless, she said she remained optimistic that the executive could be restored this side of Christmas.

Ms O'Neill said her party would only agree to a standalone Irish language act but this was a "modest" demand and an acht na Gaeilge would "go no further" than corresponding legislation in the Republic.

She argued that an Irish language act had become a "totemic issue".

"It has become an issue of people's Irishness and of them wanting to see their Irishness protected in legislation," she said.

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