Northern Ireland news

DUP and Sinn Féin at odds over funding as gas hike deepens cost of living crisis

SSE Airtricity said its tariffs would rise by 39 per cent from April 1

STORMONT'S parties were last night embroiled in a dispute over funding as rising gas prices deepened the cost of living crisis.

While the DUP and Sinn Féin were at odds over whether a three-year budget can be agreed without an executive in place, energy supplier SSE Airtricity announced an inflation-busting price hike for gas customers.

The company said its tariffs would rise by 39 per cent from April 1 in a move that will add more than £240 to the average bill.

SSE Airtricity general manager Andrew Greer said the cost of purchasing natural gas on the wholesale market had reached record highs.

"We understand this news will be unwelcome, if not unexpected, to our customers, given the extensive media focus on wholesale markets over the last six months," he said.

Raymond Gormley, head of energy policy at the Consumer Council, said the supplier has been absorbing higher commodity gas prices for a number of months.

He warned that Russia's invasion of Ukraine is likely to increase the pressure on gas and oil supply, which in turn will further push up costs.

The hike came as Sir Jeffrey Donaldson asked Stormont's party leaders to discuss cost of living support measures and the draft budget at a scheduled meeting of the party leaders next week.

However, Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O'Neill said all options to resolve the three-year draft budget while an executive is not in place had been "legally exhausted".

She rejected the DUP leader's claim that her party was "playing politics" by holding off on allocating additional money. Sinn Féin has said that around £300m of Stormont funding cannot be allocated without an executive.

"We have found ways through on things but we are limited in our ability to do things because the DUP have walked away," said Ms O'Neill.

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald called on the Treasury to intervene.

But Sir Jeffrey said he could not accept that the budget had been derailed.

He said Sinn Féin had previously stated that a number of issues, such as an apology to the victims of historical institutional abuse and funding for sub-regional stadia, could not progress without an executive but that the obstacles had subsequently been overcome.

"So I'm sorry, I don't accept this. I believe that it is important, as I have called for the party leaders to come together to sit down to look at the options that we have, and see how we take this forward," the DUP leader said.

"I'm not going to take no for an answer from Sinn Féin."

SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon wrote to Sinn Féin Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey proposing an extension to the £200 energy payment support scheme to all customers.

"There is an urgent need to act now to support all families who are in severe financial difficulty, those in receipt of social security and those on low incomes who are not," she said.

"We have an obligation to pursue every path available to support people who are being hit by this crisis."

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