November 13, 2017 15:02 GMT by theguardian.com

Westminster imposes budget on Northern Ireland

Westminster imposes budget on Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland secretary of state James Brokenshire says local civil service will run out of money if he does not pass law

Northern Ireland has taken a significant step towards transferring political power back to London with the secretary of state James Brokenshire imposing a budget on the region.

With the main political parties in the Stormont assembly unable to reach a deal to restore power-sharing in Belfast, Brokenshire has drawn up a regional budget to keep devolved ministries financially solvent. Brokenshire has warned that the local civil service will run out of money if he does not pass a budget into law at Westminster within days.

The nationalist Social Democratic and Labour party said on Monday that it was “utter madness” that the region was sliding back to direct rule because it would diminish pro-remain Northern Ireland’s voice in Brexit negotiations.

The budget plan includes a 5.4% increase in health spending in the region.

Overall public spending for the province will rise by 3.2% which means that factoring in inflation there will be no actual increase in expenditure.

Brokenshire’s budget plan does not include the £1.2bn special package that Northern Ireland agreed between Theresa May and the Democratic Unionists as part of the deal to keep the Tories in power.

The Democratic Unionist party, whose 10 MPs prop up Theresa May’s minority Conservative government, has supported Brokenshire’s move to impose a budget.

The DUP leader, Arlene Foster, said it was the right step to ensure “good governance” in Northern Ireland.

The former first minister continued: “If there continues to be a refusal to restore devolution then there will be greater intervention from London.”

But Foster said she still believed a deal could be reached between the DUP and Sinn Féin after 10 months of political deadlock and no functioning executive running local ministries.

Sinn Féin’s northern leader, Michelle O’Neill, said the British government was more interested in placating the DUP given that party’s pivotal role in holding the balance of power at Westminster.

“Theresa May and her party have acquiesced in their own self-interest to the DUP blocking the equality agenda and denying rights which are the norm in all other parts of our islands,” O’Neill said.

O’Neill repeated Sinn Féin’s core demand for a stand-alone Irish language act that would put Gaelic on an equal legal par to English in Northern Ireland and which the DUP has so far resisted.

The dispute over the language act has become the central reason the two main parties in the Stormont parliament have failed to reach an agreement leading to devolution’s restoration.

At the weekend the Sinn Féin president, Gerry Adams, said it was “very unlikely” that a deal could be secured with the DUP before Christmas.

Colum Eastwood, the leader of the SDLP, said on Monday that a political vacuum filled by direct rule could lead to a “hard border” on the island of Ireland.

He said: “It is utter madness that while the Brexit negotiations are taking place, the voice of the majority of people in the north of Ireland who voted to remain is silenced.

“Brexit is a real threat to our way of life on this island. Any suggestion of any border here must be resisted. The challenges we face here are unique and deserve careful consideration. The delivery of British direct rule by the Sinn Féin and the DUP will deliver nothing for rights and nothing but a hard brexit and I fear a hard border on this island.”

The deputy leader of the cross-community Alliance party, Stephen Farry, said the drawing up of a budget that was meant to be devised by local politicians signified the “slippery slope towards full direct rule”.

Farry laid the blame for the transfer of powers back to London however on the two main political parties in Belfast. He accused the DUP and Sinn Féin of being responsible for the “political dysfunction” that was leading back to direct rule.

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