Belfast Telegraph

It will take £5bn to get Northern Ireland running again, Boris Johnson warned by economist Birnie

Ralph Hewitt

By Ralph Hewitt

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been warned it will take at least £5bn to get Northern Ireland up and running again after three years without a government.

The eye-watering figure comes from a leading economist who has said a massive cash injection is needed to improve our infrastructure and tackle key issues such as the health crisis.

Dr Esmond Birnie said a one-off investment of £4.5bn is required for capital projects such as the York Street interchange, tackling waiting lists and solving the nursing pay dispute, followed by £500m in annual payments.

He was speaking after the Prime Minister's whistle-stop visit on Monday.

It was expected that Boris Johnson would announce that Stormont was to receive £2bn after the DUP and Sinn Fein signed up to the New Decade, New Approach deal at the weekend.

But after yesterday's meeting with First Minister Arlene Foster, Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill and Secretary of State Julian Smith at Stormont Castle, Mr Johnson would not be drawn on how much the UK Government would fund Northern Ireland as part of the agreement.

However, Stormont's new Finance Minister, Sinn Fein MLA Conor Murphy, said figures given privately fall "way short" of what was needed.

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"We have to analyse the verbal figures that were given tonight by the Secretary of State, but my initial read of them is they fall way short," he said. "I wouldn't intend to accept that. The British Government made commitments here, as part of all the rest of us. They can't come today and congratulate us for living up to our commitments and then not live up to their own."

Dr Birnie, a senior economist at Ulster University, estimates it will cost £350m to clear the health waiting lists, £750m to implement the Bengoa structural reforms to health, and £1,200m to fix the roads.

While the Prime Minister refused to reveal how much money had been agreed, Dr Birnie said he expects Mr Smith to provide more clarity in due course. Writing in today's Belfast Telegraph, Dr Birnie said: "For sure, as we wait to read the finer detail, any large scale extra money will come at the price of accountability and control - this is probably inevitable and a good thing too."

DUP Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots had suggested on BBC Radio Ulster's Nolan Show yesterday morning that separate water charges could be implemented in order to fund some of the commitments made in the deal. He added that Mr Smith was reluctant to say how much extra money would be supplied by the Treasury.

"He said he didn't want to make any promise of a figure and I said: 'Well all you have to say is billions, and that would be of course at least two billion," said Mr Poots.

"That may well come with strings attached, so for example, and I don't know this, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if they do press us to raise rates at a higher level, that we have to do something in terms of water rates.

"Those could be pressures applied by the Treasury, and we will have to wait and see if that is the case."

Currently, water charges are included in domestic rates set by councils. Mr Poots said water infrastructure was running at a £1.5bn deficit and he would not be surprised if the UK Government requests more money to be raised at a local level to reduce it.

However, Mrs O'Neill was quick to rule out the possibility of new water charges, while Mrs Foster added: "I don't think water charges will be on the table. It's something that has no support in the Executive."

The DUP leader also said she will hold the PM to his word on providing adequate finances. Mrs Foster said it was up to Mr Johnson to "step up to the plate" and deliver financially.

"I very much want to hold him to his word and make sure that we do have enough finances to deal with the resource pressures, particularly around public sector pay and other matters," she added. "But we also have a great deal of investment to put in in relation to infrastructure, and it's important that we do that as well.

"Some of the figures may sound big, but some of it is over a period of years, so those are the issues we finally need to settle with the Secretary of State, and that's what we are going to do.

"[Boris Johnson] must deliver. Because we have stepped up to the plate in relation to the political agreement.

"He put forward an agreement, he asked us to sign up to it - we all signed up to it to come into a multi-party Executive - so therefore it is incumbent on the Prime Minister to step up to the plate in terms of finances."

In their first joint statement since taking office, Mrs Foster and Mrs O'Neill said funding to make the commitment in the deal a reality must be "quick".

Mrs O'Neill added: "All Executive ministers are committed to working together to tackle some very serious issues in our society and across public services. But, quite simply, we need the money to make it happen. We have done our bit and I look forward to the fulfilment of the commitments made by the two Governments to let us get to work."

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