Northern Ireland

Stormont parties to attend talks with Secretary of State on public finances

Hillsborough Castle, Belfast (Brian Lawless/PA)
Hillsborough Castle, Belfast (Brian Lawless/PA) Hillsborough Castle, Belfast (Brian Lawless/PA)

Northern Ireland’s parties will attend talks with the Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris to discuss pressure on public finances as the powersharing impasse continues.

The Stormont Assembly and executive have been effectively collapsed for more than a year and a half amid DUP protest action over unionist concerns around post-Brexit trading arrangements.

Discussions are ongoing between the DUP and the UK government to resolve those concerns to the extent that Northern Ireland’s largest unionist party will re-enter devolved government.

In the absence of ministers, departments are being led by senior civil servants with limited powers.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris (Liam McBurney/PA)

Mr Heaton-Harris set a budget earlier this year amid challenging financial circumstances, with Stormont having two years to pay off an almost £300 million overspend.

Meanwhile, it has been estimated that departments need hundreds of millions of pounds in extra funding to maintain public services at their current level this year, and hundreds of millions more are needed to settle a series of public sector pay disputes in the region.

Mr Heaton-Harris has asked all departments to launch public consultations on potential revenue-raising measures for the region.

On Thursday the department for infrastructure launched a consultation on introducing water and sewerage charges in Northern Ireland.

The department said it sets out and seeks views on the main pathways through which water and sewerage charging could be introduced, how a relief scheme to protect vulnerable people might be developed, and how charging might be billed and collected.

It also asks about three other revenue raising options: the removal of the domestic allowance for non-domestic customers; charging customers for domestic septic tank desludging; and recovering the cost of roads drainage from all customers.

The consultation will close on March 13 2024.

The department of finance has an ongoing consultation on changes to the rates system.

Sinn Fein Ard Fheis 2023
Sinn Fein Ard Fheis 2023 Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill (Brian Lawless/PA)

On Monday the parties will gather at Hillsborough Castle for a meeting with Mr Heaton-Harris on how to address the region’s finances going forward.

Sinn Fein Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill confirmed her party will attend the meeting, and pressed for the reinstatement of the assembly and executive.

She said she wrote to Mr Heaton-Harris last Friday “emphasising the gravity of the current situation and the imperative for him to take urgent action, and immediately bring an end to the protracted and prolonged negotiations between the British Government and the DUP”.

“Sinn Fein stand ready to engage on the budgetary challenges devastating our public services which demand proper financial resources from the British Government to address the fact we are underfunded,” she said.

“This dialogue must be concluded promptly within days, with the Executive and Assembly immediately reinstated.”

Earlier DUP MLA Phillip Brett said his party will “vehemently oppose” domestic water charges.

DUP leadership
DUP leadership DUP MLA Philip Brett (right) with MLA Gordon Lyons (Liam McBurney/PA)

“The people of Northern Ireland already pay for their water through their rates bill and any further attempt to introduce another tax by stealth will simply not fly,” he said.

“The current underfunding of Northern Ireland Water is yet another symptom of the failure by HM Government to fund public services here based upon objective need.

“It is neither fair nor sustainable for Northern Ireland to be funded below need, the solution to this problem requires the underfunding of public services here to be addressed by the Treasury.

“The DUP has been highlighting this problem consistently and we will continue to press this matter in our ongoing discussions with the Government, to ensure key public services are properly funded both now and in the future.”

A Northern Ireland Office spokesperson said: “In the absence of an Executive, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has written to the Permanent Secretaries of the Northern Ireland departments, directing them to launch public consultations on measures for supporting budget sustainability and raising additional revenue.

“Conducting these consultations will enable Northern Ireland departments to identify ways to improve the sustainability of public services and public finances, paving the way for long awaited improvement and transformation of these services that we all rely on and want to protect.

“It is our hope and expectation that a returning Executive will grip the information and consultation responses that Northern Ireland departments put together and use this to make the necessary decisions to keep the public finances in order.

“Only that way can we ensure that public services work well in the long term.”