Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 23 November 2014

Historical abuse inquiry could be axed because of spending row at Stormont, says Peter Robinson

Peter Robinson
Peter Robinson

A state inquiry into historic institutional abuse in Northern Ireland is under threat because of a stand-off at Stormont over spending, the First Minister has warned.

Peter Robinson said there would be "catastrophic" consequences if he and Martin McGuinness cannot agree a series of emergency cuts early next week.

They are needed because our budget has been reduced by London to reflect the fact that we are now overspending on welfare payments compared to England and Wales.

Things came to a head in the June monitoring round, a review of budgets in which cuts must be made in spending budgets. Some £80m in capital spending must also be allocated or else handed back to the treasury.

The historical abuse inquiry is examining allegations of abuse in care homes between 1922 and 1995. The DUP claims the ongoing row about how the Executive should spend its money has placed a question mark over the probe, and has blamed Sinn Fein for the impasse. Mr Robinson said: "I am meeting with Martin McGuinness in the early part of the week to see if we can reach some conclusions on those issues."

The First Minister said that if he could reach agreement with Mr McGuinness the Executive should be called together for a meeting.

"I don't think we can take decisions dealing with hundreds of millions of pounds and not bring ministers together to discuss it."

He added: "I actually go further. I believe that if the Executive reach agreement we should call the Assembly back to discuss it because I think that members have a right to question the Finance Minister on those issues as well."

He warned: "There will be a number of catastrophic consequences if the monitoring round is not cleared. Sinn Fein not only refuses to take any decision in relation to welfare reform but they don't want to take any decision to deal with the penalties for not taking a decision.

"That is not doable in governmental terms. You can't spend money that is no longer there. We are already being penalised – money has been deducted from our budget and will continue to be deducted unless this issue dealt with. Unfortunately we can't continue spending money that has already been taken from us."

Margaret McGuckin, who said she was abused at a Sisters of Nazareth orphanage in Belfast from the age of three, said she felt let down. "All the parties agreed to this," she added.

"They stood on the steps of Stormont and said how taken they were by all of our stories, and how nothing would stop it or interfere with it.

"It is up to Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness to get their act together and keep their promises."

Sinn Fein MLA Daithi McKay, who chairs the Stormont finance committee, said his party had been trying to get the DUP to agree to spending plans for two weeks.

"The June monitoring round can and should be agreed quickly and the money made available for the work of the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry and for the large number of other projects affected," he said.

"Unfortunately the DUP have been more focused on their graduated response to contentious parades and pan-unionist alliances than with the important work of government and defending public services."

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt urged the Executive to unite in pledging to protect the inquiry's funding.

He said it was "inconceivable" that the inquiry would be wound up early because of a lack of resources.

"Many, many victims will be unnecessarily dismayed and distressed after hearing Peter Robinson say that this outrageous suggestion is even being considered," he said.

"The fact that the First Minister would try and introduce this to a public debate is deeply regrettable.

"There are billions of pounds in the Executive budget and to even consider targeting the funding of the HIA inquiry is politics of the lowest order."

BACKGROUND

Sinn Fein and the SDLP have blocked agreement on extending British welfare reform cuts here. As the result we are paying more for welfare payments than other regions and the Treasury has reduced our block grant to claw back the overspend. That leaves the Executive with less money to spend but it has failed so far to agree the savings or cuts.

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