Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland Executive has imposed North Korean levels of secrecy, claims Nesbitt

By Noel McAdam

Anger is growing at Stormont over how money is being spent, with the Ulster Unionist leader accusing the Executive of "North Korean levels of secrecy".

The row erupted after the SDLP sounded alarm bells that the DUP and Sinn Fein were withholding information on public cash allocations from the Opposition parties.

Former Alliance minister Stephen Farry demanded the Assembly and its committees be given the right to access details on the redistribution of unspent departmental money.

The concern from all three Opposition parties came after ministers said the more "streamlined" Executive - now without SDLP, Alliance and Ulster Unionist ministers - had allowed for a different approach to be taken to the most recent spending round.

It was hoped that the "new environment" in the Executive would mean that the previous bidding war between ministers could be avoided.

But UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said: "These actions indicate the Executive are going to attempt pull the shutters down against any scrutiny from the official Opposition.

"The different environment that they claim to be operating in appears to be a pretty insecure one.

"It doesn't bode well if the Executive is going to shield how it does business with North Korean levels of secrecy.

"The monitoring rounds have always been scrutinised publicly, as they should be.

"Ministers must be accountable in allocating resources and alleviating departmental pressures through a transparent process. Instead, we are going to be served up what the Executive wants us to see. Hardly the fresh start we were promised."

Alliance finance spokesman Mr Farry added: "Monitoring rounds are much more than just a matter of the greatest convenience for the Executive parties.

"They go to the heart of sound management of public funds and associated accountability and transparency, in particular when resources are so tight."

The Alliance MLA also insisted the Assembly and its committees "should be given their full place in terms of scrutiny."

DUP MLA Christopher Stalford replied, however: "'We have made progress towards more normal politics in Northern Ireland, including through the creation of an Opposition.

"Mike Nesbitt may wish to cling to how things were done in the past, but we want to change the way Stormont does business.

"The kind of information shared with committees is actually now more in line with the experience at Westminster. That Mike Nesbitt would believe this represents 'North Korean levels of secrecy' speaks volumes about the UUP in Opposition.

"Mike Nesbitt walked away from the opportunity to be in Government. He's now admitting that Opposition appears to be a bit too difficult for him also."

Mr Nesbitt's attack followed similar claims made by the SDLP's Nichola Mallon in this newspaper. "It seems that one of the first acts of the new Executive was to further reduce transparency and close ranks against public scrutiny," the MLA said.

"Previously in-year monitoring round bids were subject to committee scrutiny and public debate, allowing everyone to see where resources were being allocated and where ministers believed pressures existed.

"Now Sinn Fein and the DUP have decided to withhold that information following several requests from SDLP MLAs."

In written responses the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Michelle McIlveen and Communities Minister Paul Givan said: "We are now in a different environment, particularly with the introduction of an official Opposition. Therefore, processes have changed.

"This has replaced the previous bidding process and will allow for a more objective assessment of genuine pressures across departments."

The last cash share-out included an extra £72m for the health service, a further £30m for schools - £5m of it targeted at special educational needs - and £25m for roads maintenance and building schemes.

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