Stormont agrees budget deal: 20,000 broken street lights to be fixed and Ulster Orchestra given a lifeline... but only DUP and Sinn Fein support draft
The threat to the existence of the cash-strapped Ulster Orchestra has been lifted and thousands of broken street lights across Northern Ireland are to be fixed.
The news from Stormont emerged as the Executive agreed a draft budget which will pump another £150million into government departments. However, only the DUP and Sinn Fein supported it - the three smaller Executive parties voted against it.
Yesterday's budget meeting was described as "fairly fractious". Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy called it "another Sinn Fein/DUP carve-up concocted in the back rooms of Stormont Castle rather than around the Executive table".
Insiders said the biggest winners were the departments of health (a DUP ministry), education (Sinn Fein), employment and learning (Alliance), and justice (Alliance), in that order. Most of the extra funding for justice is earmarked to relieve pressures on policing. Free transport for over 60s will be retained and student numbers at local universities will be boosted after there had been threats to impose cuts.
There will also be more funds for the Department of Trade to ensure it can continue to pay promised incentives to firms creating jobs here. Finance Minister Simon Hamilton will unveil the full details on Monday.
The Executive also pledged to implement the Stormont House Agreement and now that it has struck a budget, the Government can press ahead with legislation to devolve corporation tax powers.
In a separate move at yesterday's Executive, news that the Ulster Orchestra is to get funding from the January monitoring round, when money is reallocated between departments, must have been music to the ears of worried classical fans.
A threat of potential closure had been hanging over the orchestra since the autumn when it emerged that it had a massive funding shortfall. This money will get it through the next few months. After that it is hoped to fund it on a five-year basis with assistance from the Treasury, and Stormont's finance and culture departments.
The monitoring round also found the £5m needed to allow Mr Kennedy to renew contracts for the repair of around 20,000 broken street lights.
But last night, a furious Mr Kennedy - who had previously cancelled a repair contract to balance his books -said he had been waiting for the money since October.
"It is a matter of regret that Simon Hamilton continues to force people to suffer unnecessary inconvenience by sitting on money that could be used for road repairs and other essential services," he said. Mr Hamilton said he was disappointed with the three dissenting parties, accusing them of leaving the DUP and Sinn Fein to do the "heavy lifting".
"It is a budget that does a lot to protect key public services like health, education and policing and it also makes investments that can underpin economic growth in Northern Ireland. This is not a budget that would be of my making and indeed any other party would make changes if it was entirely up to them," he said.
Justice Minister David Ford accused the big two parties of being "determined to force through a two-party deal, disregarding the views of the other parties".