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Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir under fire over secrecy on Stormont cash

By Noel McAdam

Published 08/10/2016

Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir
Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir

Pressure is growing on Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir to disclose how unspent Government cash has been re-allocated at Stormont.

He has been accused of being out of step with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness as a row over increasing secrecy by the Executive intensifies.

The SDLP has tabled a series of urgent questions after Mr McGuinness insisted he wanted to maintain transparency following claims that Sinn Fein had closed ranks with the DUP to avoid public scrutiny.

Since the smaller Assembly parties, including the Ulster Unionists and Alliance, left the Executive to go into Opposition, they have not been given access to the same level of information on issues such as the regular monitoring round redistribution of departmental money.

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt insisted it did not bode well if the Executive was going to do business with "North Korean levels of secrecy".

Former Alliance minister Stephen Farry also stressed Stormont scrutiny committees were entitled to information on issues they monitor.

Mr McGuinness told the Assembly, however: "We will do everything in our power to ensure that we meet the requirements of (committees).

"Clearly, it is important as we go forward that the programme for government and the budget meet the needs of the committees of the Assembly.

"I, for one, am very determined that the committees are accorded the respect they deserve. They are as much a part of the process as anybody else, and it is very important that they have an input into what we are trying to do."

But in response to a set of written questions, Mr O Muilleoir told the SDLP's Nichola Mallon: "We are now in a radically different environment, particularly with the introduction of an official Opposition.

"The more streamlined Executive, working to a common purpose, is able to agree relative priorities in departments and agree allocations. The formal bidding process which existed before simply encouraged departments to submit wishlists which had little basis in reality."

Mrs Mallon hit back: "The provision of monitoring round information has been a staple of government scrutiny since the restoration of devolution.

"Now the Finance Minister and his Executive colleagues have deliberately chosen to close down accountability surrounding public finances by refusing to provide that information on the grounds that the introduction of an official Opposition changes the environment.

"Unfortunately, it seems that no one told the deputy First Minister because, in answer to questions in the Assembly, he clearly said that such information should be provided, placing him at loggerheads with his party and Executive colleagues.

"This division is either the result of internal Sinn Fein machinations or simply government incompetence. Regardless, it is critical that this information is made available to the public."

In light of Mr McGuinness's comments, the North Belfast MLA has tabled further questions asking when the Finance Minister will present details of both the last re-allocation, in June, and the next, due to get under way this month.

In recent days, the Executive Office failed to send any of its four ministers to respond to an Alliance motion warning public trust is being hit by "ongoing problems with openness and transparency from the Executive".

Belfast Telegraph

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