Northern Ireland

First Minister rejects charge Executive unwilling to make hard calls on finance

Michelle O’Neill said the settlement offered by the Treasury did not go far enough to put Northern Ireland on a stable financial footing.

Michelle O’Neill, left, said Northern Ireland was underfunded compared to other parts of the UK
Michelle O’Neill, left, said Northern Ireland was underfunded compared to other parts of the UK (David Young/PA)

Stormont’s First Minister has rejected the charge that the new Executive is unwilling to make hard decisions as she vowed to continue the fight to secure more Treasury money for Northern Ireland.

Michelle O’Neill and deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly both called for a “level playing field” as they insisted the region was underfunded compared to other parts of the UK.

After attending a meeting of the ministerial executive at Stormont Castle, the devolved administration’s joint leaders again rejected the demand from the UK Government for the Executive to raise an additional £113 million of its own revenues in the coming financial year.

The Treasury has offered to write off almost £600 million of Stormont debt, conditional on the Executive raising the £113 million and producing a plan to deliver sustainable finances.

The stipulation is a key element of a £3.3 billion financial package drawn up by the Government to support the return of devolution in Northern Ireland.

Ms O’Neill has ruled out introducing a number of measures that could potentially generate the £113 million, such as a 15% rise on a portion of rates bills paid by householders in Northern Ireland.

The First and deputy First Ministers have said the settlement offered by the Treasury does not go far enough to put Northern Ireland on a stable financial footing and have vowed to press the Treasury to make significant changes to enhance how the region is funded.

Elsewhere on Thursday, a Stormont spending watchdog warned that the Executive faced a “cliff edge” when money from the support package ran out.

The Northern Ireland Fiscal Council said the £3.3 billion settlement provided a substantial cash injection to deal with immediate pressures but it questioned whether the package offered a realistic route to long-term financial sustainability at Stormont.

After the Executive meeting at Stormont Castle, where ministers agreed to allocate £688 million to address outstanding public sector pay demands, the First Minister was asked whether the refusal to hike rates bills, or introduce other revenue-raising measures, such as water charges, was indicative of an administration that was not prepared to take unpopular decisions.

“I think that’s very unfair,” she said.

“I frequently hear this over the course of the debates, that we as an Executive aren’t prepared to make hard calls. But I can tell you who’s making hard calls – people who can’t heat their homes, our public sector workers who’ve been waiting on their pay increase.

“So, the public out there at large are very challenged with the cost-of-living crisis. What we’re trying to do is actually get the fundamentals right, we want a proper funding model so we can do good public services, that we can pay fair and reasonable public sector pay. I mean, I think that’s not an unreasonable ask. And whenever we compare to how we’re funded to what’s happening in Scotland or Wales, it’s not a level playing field.

“So what we’re asking for is a just a settlement in terms of the finances here, and then, in the round, with the additional fiscal levers and powers that should be devolved here to the Executive, then we’d be in a much better position to actually take proper tax and spend decisions.”

The Sinn Fein vice president added: “Our public services, as we all know, have been underfunded for years. And it’s very clear that there is huge and significant pressure facing all our public service delivery. So, for our part, we’re going to continue with the fight, we’re going to continue with this conversation that we are embarked on with Treasury to ensure that we have properly funded public services.”

Ms Little-Pengelly said the UK Government was talking about cutting taxes in its own budget this spring, but yet asking Stormont to increase the local tax burden on citizens in Northern Ireland.

“So, we’re just simply asking for a level playing field,” she said.

“Our public sector workers deserve the same fair pay settlements and arrangements, they deserve to be recognised in the same way.

“Our hard-working families throughout Northern Ireland under pressure deserve the same support as other families get elsewhere.”

The DUP MLA said the Executive was up for making choices on efficiencies but that it needed time to develop a plan.

“In Treasury terms, this is a relatively small amount of money (£113 million), but in the time frame that we have in terms of what has been set down, it will be punitive, it will be punishing for families,” she said.

“And that is not the right thing to do. And that’s the message that we’re standing by, we’re absolutely up for the challenge of putting our finances on a sustainable footing, tackling the big issues of reform. But that, of course, takes some time, it takes consideration and would require that discussion. We are up for that. But we need the time and support to be able to do that.”

Finance Minister Caoimhe Archibald questioned the logic of the UK Government stance.

“I think all parties are united in wanting to ensure that we have properly funded public services,” she said.

“I think the British Government has recognised that we have been underfunded.

“That hasn’t been properly addressed in the financial package and I think it’s untenable to recognise that we have been underfunded, and then not to put the money on the table to ensure that we are able to deliver our public services in a way that people rightly expect of us.”