Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

Key decisions left in limbo as Stormont ministers pull meeting

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Stormont ministers have cancelled today's Executive meeting, ducking a number of key anticipated decisions.

No reason for the postponement was given, but calling off the regular fortnightly formal meeting is relatively rare. Today's meeting had been expected to make crunch decisions on a number of key issues.

"It is very unusual but it may be down to the fact that they are not at the point of agreement yet," a senior source said. And another source said "very little business" was transacted at the last Thursday meeting a fortnight ago.

Issues up for discussion included a hardship scheme for farmers badly affected by the recent snow blizzards; where £100m earmarked for the abandoned A5 road scheme should now go, and finalising plans to opt out of the so-called bedroom tax.

Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill was due to put proposals to the meeting in an attempt to get payments through to suffering farmers by the end of June.

SDLP MLA Joe Byrne said: "The handling of this issue by DARD is now becoming a joke, but unfortunately the farmers affected by it do not find it funny. I am now calling on Minister O'Neill to grasp the nettle and get this farm-aid scheme finalised and cash aid payments made to farmers without any further delay.

"It is unacceptable that suffering farmers have still seen no cash aid payments after seven weeks since the poor weather."

Meanwhile, First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness say they are close to an agreement on how to deal with the controversial issue of flying flags. It is understood a deal on flags is one of a number of policy developments expected to be unveiled by the two men in the near future. New economic stimulus initiatives are also apparently being finalised around the table at Stormont Castle.

Progress has been achieved in recent weeks after a period of relative stalemate and ill-feeling between the DUP and Sinn Fein. Relations are believed to have improved following a series of intensive, behind-closed-doors meetings involving senior party figures.

A decision in December by Belfast City Council to limit the number of days the Union flag flies over Belfast City Hall triggered mass loyalist protests and rioting.

"We have proposals in terms of how we should proceed with this issue which we will announce in due course," said Mr Robinson. "Hopefully within the next few weeks."

Mr McGuinness added: "The main point is that we appear very close to agreeing a way forward on how we should put in place a mechanism to deal with the issue."

SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell warned Mr McGuinness and Mr Robinson not to "concoct" a deal behind closed doors.

Factfile

Key issues that won't be discussed today by the Executive:

• A hardship scheme for farmers

• How to spend unused A5 cash

• Opting out of so-called bedroom tax

• Westminster's aid package

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