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Cut to education but increase in health budget if Stormont parties fail to reach agreement

Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire has set out to MPs legislation that will allow fresh attempts to be made to restore devolved government at Stormont.

Mr Brokenshire made clear that if no government is in place by the latest talks deadline of June 29, he will intervene to effectively set Stormont's budget for the rest of the financial year.

He published indicative figures for a budget he will impose if the Stormont's parties do not reach agreement in the ongoing talks.

Stormont's finances have been under the control of a senior civil servant since the start of the financial year due to the absence of an executive.

Figures published on Monday [Word document] include a 3% increase in cash for health spending but a 2.5% cut for education. The Department of Communities would also see a increase in it's budget.

The proposed departmental budgetary allocations are based on financial assessments by senior civil servants. The civil servants in turn were guided by the general policy directions of the last ministerial executive, before it imploded.

Funding would also be available for projects which were announced by the Executive as part of their 2016-17 Budget.

These include the A5 and A6 road projects, the Belfast Transport Hub, and the Mother and Children's Hospital.

"However it would be for individual departments to prioritise and allocate their capital budgets. As with the resource totals above, this does not include the £7m of capital provided in the March Budget," Brokenshire added.

Mr Brokenshire also laid out the new Northern Ireland (Ministerial Appointments and Regional Rates) Bill.

The legislation will give Stormont's rowing parties a three-week window to strike a deal after the general election.

It will enable the collection of household rates payments in Northern Ireland, funds that run local council services, as well as paving the way for future legislation for Westminster to set a budget in Northern Ireland if no executive is formed after the latest round of talks.

Mr Brokenshire dismissed suggestions this was a return to direct rule, saying it was up to the parties in Northern Ireland to sort out their differences.

He added: "My point remains that that does not need to be the outcome.

"The outcome that we want to see is an executive being formed, the outcome that we want to see is devolved government being put into place, making decisions within Northern Ireland for the people of Northern Ireland."

Parties to decide whether to halts talks

Stormont politicians will decide on Thursday whether to halt talks to restore powersharing until the General Election is over.

With all sides acknowledging the chances of a compromise deal are slim when parties are focused on an adversarial race for votes, there is a growing expectation that the process may be paused or significantly scaled back until after June 8.

The matter will be discussed on Thursday when the leaders of the main parties meet Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire and Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan at Stormont Castle, Belfast.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said it was time to drop the "pretence" that anything was being achieved by continuing to talk.

"There is nothing worse than pretending to be negotiating," he said.

"The idea that we are going to get a deal in these current circumstances is just not credible."

Mr Eastwood laid the blame at Theresa May's door, claiming her decision to call the election had torpedoed any chance of an agreement in the short term.

Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly levelled a similar charge at Mrs May.

"The fact the British Prime Minister is either indifferent to what happens here or actually moved deliberately in terms of what happened here we are now left with a difficulty in trying to move forward at all," he said.

"People understand how difficult it would be to come to solid conclusions in the middle of an election, but the British Prime Minister didn't seem to worry about that."

The fate of powersharing rests on whether the two main parties - Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists - can reach a consensus.

Sinn Fein demands for legislative protections for Irish speakers, an end to the region's ban on gay marriage and the implementation of a Northern Ireland-specific bill of rights are among the issues of dispute.

The party has accused the DUP of preventing the formation of a "rights-based" government.

But the DUP has dismissed this, claiming Sinn Fein is focused only on the wish-list of its own supporters, and is failing to appreciate that others want movement on other issues.

The DUP is seeking protections for Ulster Scots speakers and has also pressed for the introduction of a military covenant in Northern Ireland, a series of policies that define the state's obligations to its armed services.

The Ulster Unionists, SDLP and Alliance Party are also involved in the protracted negotiations, along with the UK and Irish governments.

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