Political news

British government to impose a budget, James Brokenshire confirms

Stormont has been without a powersharing government since January when the late deputy first minister Martin McGuinness resigned over the DUP's handling of a botched green energy scheme
Siobhan Fenton and Ed Carty, Press Association

Preparations are being made for the British government to impose a budget on Northern Ireland by the end of the month, James Brokenshire has said.

The Secretary of State said the move stopped short of direct rule and that he would abandon the idea if the DUP and Sinn Féin could reach a deal in that time.

Mr Brokenshire said Northern Ireland would begin to run out of money by the end of November.

"No government could simply stand by and allow that to happen," he said.

"I am, therefore, now taking forward the necessary steps that would enable a Budget Bill to be introduced at Westminster at the appropriate moment in order to protect the delivery of public services in Northern Ireland."

The DUP and Sinn Fein failed to meet Mr Brokenshire's original Monday deadline for a powersharing deal, with Stormont effectively in limbo since January.

Mr Brokenshire said he was taking legal advice on whether MLAs should keep being paid.

Last month he said he was considering new laws on the issue of salaries - £49,500 a year, or about £41,250 in the months since Stormont has been shut.

The Secretary of State said important progress has been made in the talks, which are continuing, but the issue of Irish language rights is one of the biggest crisis points.

He said it was unlikely the Stormont Executive could be revived in time for Northern Ireland's politicians to determine the budget by the end of the month.

Mr Brokenshire said the latest deadline should not be seen as a reason to abandon the negotiations.

"Let me be clear, this is not a barrier to continued political negotiations and the government will continue to work with the parties with that intent," he said.

"And indeed, however unlikely, should an Executive be formed speedily enough and a means could be created to provide an exceptional procedure to enable the budget to be passed by the end of November I would be prepared to withdraw the Budget Bill in order for Assembly to legislate for itself."

Mr Brokenshire urged the parties to secure a deal.

"It remains firmly in the interests of Northern Ireland to see devolved government restored, to see locally elected politicians making decisions for the people of Northern Ireland," he said.

"With goodwill and compromise on all sides the parties can still achieve this and it is what needs to happen."

Mr Brokenshire stayed in Belfast to outline the state of play and is expected to speak in Westminster on the issue on Thursday.

He accepted talks could not run indefinitely.

"I think there is already a huge amount of frustration out there in Northern Ireland, that people here want to see politics here get on with the job and serving them," he said.

"Yes, this has gone on for an extended period, but I still think it is right that we use renewed efforts to find a resolution to see devolved government get back on its feet again.

"It's because it matters so much - that local accountability, local politicians serving here in Northern Ireland. But they can't merely continue forever and a day."

The Republic of Ireland's Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, who had been involved in the talks earlier this week, said London was acting reluctantly and delaying a threatened budget as late as possible.

"Both governments share the view that it is regrettable and deeply concerning that, eight months after the last Assembly election, a powersharing Executive is not in place to make the necessary decisions, including on budgetary issues, for Northern Ireland," he said.

In their statements Mr Coveney and Mr Brokenshire also noted the importance of the Good Friday Agreement.

"The Irish government, working with the British government, has spared no effort in supporting and facilitating these talks over many months but the issue at the heart of this is the relationship between the parties," Mr Coveney said.

He said the DUP and Sinn Féin needed to resolve the deadlock first.

"The issues under discussion - particularly those on language and culture - go to the heart of the divisions in society here in Northern Ireland and so agreement on them was always going to be very challenging," he said.

"However, I have always believed that it is possible to reach an honourable compromise which reflects the core principles of the Agreement - partnership, equality and mutual respect."

Political reaction

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood insisted the Secretary of State's move was direct rule and warned that people in Northern Ireland were deeply worried.

Green Party leader Steven Agnew said there had been a blackout on what issues the Sinn Fein and the DUP cannot agree on.

"What we now need from the Secretary of State is a concerted effort to introduce transparency, creativity and inclusivity into negotiations, to end the blackout on what the sticking points are and to listen to alternative approaches," he said.

Mr Agnew also said MLAs' pay should be cut by two-thirds.

Sinn Féin's northern leader Michelle O'Neill said: "We did our best to be flexible, we were prepared to stretch ourselves, and all in the interest of the common good.

"But as you know, endless talks without conclusion are not sustainable."

Ms O'Neill added that negotiations between the parties had been hampered by the Conservative Party's pact with the DUP at Westminster, which secured Theresa May's minority government on a number of key votes.

She said: "This has been compounded by the Tory-DUP pact. The British Secretary of State is wrong when he says that it is only the parties themselves who can reach agreement - he and the Irish government also have obligations."

British Prime Minister Theresa May's official spokesman told reporters that Mr Brokenshire would continue to facilitate talks between the parties, saying: "Our aim is still to get to a position where the Assembly can get up and running again. That is our priority."

Asked whether the imposition of a budget would mean Northern Ireland losing out on the £1 billion of government investment agreed at the time of the DUP's deal to prop up the minority Conservative administration, a senior Downing Street source said: "The money that has been promised as part of the confidence and supply deal is for the people of Northern Ireland and we are committed to delivering on that undertaking."

DUP MP Gregory Campbell accused Sinn Féin of "rank hypocrisy" over the deadlock at Stormont and said his party is ready to form an executive.

"We want devolution. Arlene Foster has led our talks team and is rightly frustrated that government is being held back by a narrow political agenda," he said.

"We received an overwhelming mandate to ensure any deal was fair. That mandate has to be respected, just as we respect the mandate of others."

On the Irish language, a key sticking point in a deal, Mr Campbell said it is already catered for like no other minority language.

"We cannot and will not be party to an agreement that elevates the Irish language not only above all others, but above health, education and other vital public services," Mr Campbell said.

UUP leader Robin Swann said: "Northern Ireland is now coming slowly and deliberately to direct rule, at the hands of Sinn Fein and the DUP.

"The secretary of state has used analogies like a glide path and I think we are now on that final approach that he's spoken about.

"We would see that as a failure of what's happened here. We put ourselves over the line in 1998 and stretched this party, stretched Northern Ireland and we didn't think that 20 years later we'd be sitting in this position."

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