Political news

Prolonged lack of Stormont leadership 'will hit government finances'

David Sterling said a long period without government would be "difficult" to manage 
Deborah McAleese and Ed Carty, Press Association

A long period without government will leave the north facing serious financial difficulties, a senior civil servant has said.

David Sterling, permanent secretary at Stormont's Department of Finance, issued the warning ahead of the impending collapse of the ruling executive.

If Sinn Féin refuse to renominate a deputy first minister to replace the resigned Martin McGuinness by 5pm on Monday, the institutions will fall and Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire will be legally obliged to call a snap election.

An election will not solve a bitter dispute at the heart of powersharing between Sinn Féin and the DUP and if those parties again emerge as the two largest in the wake of the poll, an immediate return to powersharing is unlikely.

A major talks process would likely be required, raising the spectre of devolution being suspended and direct rule from Westminster being reintroduced.

The Stormont meltdown has torpedoed the process of agreeing a budget for the next financial year. Without a budget or ministers, civil servants would take control of the purse strings, but would be limited on the money they can spend.

Giving evidence to the Assembly's Finance Committee, Mr Sterling said: "A long period without a government would be difficult for us to manage.

"Our objective as civil servants would be to ensure minimal disruption...but I wouldn't want to downplay the difficulties. It will be difficult. I am hopeful it will be as short as possible an interruption to government."

Mr McGuinness's move was precipitated by the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal - a botched eco-scheme set to cost Stormont £490 million - but the row has also reignited a range of other disputes dividing the DUP/Sinn Fein-led coalition.

The reappointment process is one of a number of elements of the political crisis due to be raised in the Assembly chamber on Monday.

Emergency proposals aimed at reducing the RHI overspend will be tabled by DUP Economy minister Simon Hamilton while Sinn Fein will also table a motion of no confidence in DUP Speaker Robin Newton.

Mr Newton has been under political pressure over his handling of a recalled Assembly session to debate RHI before Christmas.

He has also been forced to defend himself against conflict of interest accusations in regard to his handling of Assembly exchanges on a controversial charity in his east Belfast constituency.

The devolution meltdown has cast a shadow of uncertainty over a series of big ticket Stormont Executive plans.

One of those is a payment scheme for households losing out under the British government's so-called "bedroom tax" and, also on Monday, DUP Communities minister Paul Givan will bypass the Executive to ask for direct Assembly approval for the support measure.

Mr McGuinness's resignation automatically removed DUP leader Arlene Foster from her position as first minister - as executive structures dictate one cannot govern without the other.

On Sunday, Mr Brokenshire said no alternatives to powersharing were being contemplated, which could include direct rule or joint authority between London and Dublin.

Sinn Fein has accused the DUP of "arrogance and disrespect" in office and insisted republicans will only enter another executive if its long-term coalition partners give way on a series of "equality issues", such as the Irish language and gay rights.

The DUP, for its part, has made clear it will not deliver a "republican agenda" and said the very structures of mandatory coalition powersharing need to be reviewed before another executive is formed.

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