Belfast Telegraph

As Brokenshire sets Northern Ireland budget, hopes for a deal all but disappear

By Suzanne Breen

Hopes of a deal to restore devolution before Christmas dwindled last night as a DUP MP called on the Government to appoint direct rule ministers to run Northern Ireland.

Ian Paisley was speaking as the Secretary of State set a budget for Northern Ireland at Westminster for the first time in over a decade.

James Brokenshire claimed it didn't mark the introduction of direct rule, but the SDLP insisted it did, and Sinn Fein said current talks to restore the Stormont institutions were over.

The budget brings a 5.4% rise in health spending, a 1.5% increase for education, a 3% drop for agriculture and the environment, and a 0.4% decrease for justice.

To cheers from DUP MPs, Mr Brokenshire confirmed that, despite the political deadlock at Stormont, £50m would be made available to Northern Ireland from the party's £1bn 'confidence and supply' arrangement with the Tories.

The money will be used to address urgent health and education pressures.

Nigel Dodds called it "a very significant moment in the history of this Parliament".

With increasing public demand for MLAs' salaries to be stopped, the Secretary of State said he had commissioned an independent review into their pay while the Assembly is mothballed.

He said he was setting a budget with "the utmost reluctance". Urging Sinn Fein and the DUP to reach a deal, he stressed that he didn't intend to appoint London ministers to take control at Stormont.

But Mr Paisley warned that Northern Ireland couldn't continue in political limbo.

"That is not sustainable for any period of time whatsoever. There must be political accountability and he must move there urgently to appoint ministers to take political control," he said. Mr Brokenshire replied: "That it is not a step that I do intend to take... while there is an opportunity for an Executive to be formed, and there have been discussions that have been ongoing."

However, he acknowledged that the situation couldn't continue indefinitely and wasn't "sustainable into the long-term".

The budget outlines a 3.2%, rise in overall public spending in Northern Ireland but, after allowing for inflation, there has been no real increase in expenditure.

On MLAs continuing on full salaries, Mr Brokenshire said he had asked former clerk of the Assembly Trevor Reaney to "provide an independent assessment of the case for action and the steps he would consider appropriate, and report back to me by December 15".

The Secretary of State said it would be up to civil servants to make decisions on how to use the additional funding secured in the DUP's confidence and supply agreement.

Welcoming the first tranche of funding, Mr Dodds said: "Some people said it depended on the Executive. Clearly, that's not the case.

"And the people of Northern Ireland - all of them, unionists, nationalists, everyone in Northern Ireland - will welcome the fact that extra money is going into the health service, into education... as a result of the deal that the DUP did with the Government."

Sinn Fein Northern Ireland leader Michelle O'Neill said the setting of a budget meant the current talks to restore devolution "are over".

She blamed the DUP for the failure to reach a deal.

"The reason for this is the DUP opposition to a rights-based society. While some progress was made, the denial of rights would not be tolerated in Dublin and London and should not be tolerated here.

"We met the DUP this morning and told them this."

Mrs O'Neill said her party was seeking urgent meetings with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Prime Minister Theresa May.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood accused Sinn Fein of failing to make any gains for nationalists.

"Sinn Fein should be ashamed of themselves today. Instead of delivering equality, Sinn Fein have gifted Arlene Foster more power than she could have dreamed of," he claimed.

"They went into two recent elections promising to put manners on Arlene Foster. Instead, their failed negotiation has handed her and her party complete control."

Labour shadow Secretary of State Owen Smith said: "If this is not direct rule, it's getting perilously close to it."

UUP MLA Steve Aiken said it was disgraceful we were not closer to seeing the Stormont institutions restored.

"Sinn Fein's continued cries over Tory austerity ring hollow, given it is within their power to re-establish the Assembly and Executive. If they really wanted to deliver for all the people of Northern Ireland, they would drop their red lines," he said.

Belfast Telegraph

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