Fresh divisions in the Stormont Executive have been exposed after Finance Minister Sammy Wilson and Education Minister John O’Dowd clashed on public spending.
Recent strains between the main power-sharing parties were again underlined as the DUP minister also blamed his Sinn Fein counterpart for delaying a review of ministerial spending and accused him of dragging his heels over education allowances.
Mr Wilson also said it was “deeply concerning” and “regrettable” that an important piece of work within the Executive had not been able to be progressed.
Officials said this was a reference to the long row over establishing the new Education and Skills Authority (ESA).
Behind the row is growing disquiet over the trend of some ministers to fail to spend their budgets, ending up handing back millions of pounds which has to be then redistributed or it would go back to the Treasury.
Mr Wilson said he was particularly disappointed by the lack of progress on educational maintenance allowances aimed at encouraging teenagers to stay in education, which he cited as a “clear example” of a minister appearing to drag his heels.
While denying he has any personal problem with O’Dowd, Mr Wilson told MLAs: “The difficulty has been with the Education Minister who, ironically, will give information to the Treasury in London before he will give it to this Assembly.”
Mr O’Dowd told the Belfast Telegraph he was surprised Mr Wilson had made public an issue the Executive has yet to discuss and “alarmed” that officials were briefing the media on it.
“The problem here is if I want to move money from one part of my department to another I am supposed to get the approval of the Department of Finance, and I just don’t think that is necessary,” he said.
“It will not be sorted out by megaphone diplomacy.
“While I am in favour of transparency, if we are talking about Mr Wilson’s department having control, I am not in favour of that.”
In the Assembly, former Sinn Fein Education Minister Caitriona Ruane said: “I know that old habits die hard, but I wonder whether the minister wakes up in the morning thinking, ‘How am I going to get at Sinn Fein today?’” and Mr Wilson retorted: “You must think I lead a very sad life.”
The row came as the latest quarterly monitoring of spending was announced in the Assembly, with £19m going to health to pay for increased centralisation of some services which should generate annual savings of £26m in time.
The largest ongoing ‘underspend’ is in Ulster Unionist Danny Kennedy’s Department for Regional Development because of delays in starting the A5 road project, which is being held up by a court injunction.
Every month £10m allocated towards the project is unspent — due to reach £80m by the end of this financial year — and Mr Wilson has opened negotiations with the Treasury to ensure the Executive can hold on to it.
Under Treasury rules, capital money cannot be switched into the current account. Already £30m of it has been loaned to NI Water for projects including flood alleviation, and which will have to be paid back if and when the A5 finally gets under way.