Belfast Telegraph

Stormont passes budget without welfare deal

By Michael McHugh

Stormont has passed a budget for Northern Ireland without reaching agreement on welfare changes.

Money for public spending is due to run out in months due to a £600 million shortfall largely down to a split between nationalists and unionists over benefits which is threatening the future of power-sharing.

DUP finance minister Arlene Foster warned ministers against taking rash spending decisions without a deal.

But senior Sinn Fein negotiator Conor Murphy said there should be a united approach to combating austerity he blamed on the British government.

Ms Foster said: "It would be very foolish for any minister to continue to spend without any regard to the situation that we find ourselves in.

"If welfare reform was implemented we could continue with our discretionary spending.

"Without welfare reform there is no Stormont House Agreement and therefore there is not the flexibility available to us which we require to move forward."

Most of the spending shortfall is due to a dispute between unionists and nationalists over December's Stormont House Agreement.

Sinn Fein and the SDLP opposed welfare changes which they believed will hurt the most vulnerable.

The DUP argued they were being irresponsible with public finances and said it had negotiated the best deal possible on benefits with Whitehall.

Treasury penalties similar to fines have been imposed in lieu of cuts to the benefits bill, which is footed from Whitehall, while the parties wrangle.

Some of the hole in the spending plans involves other departmental budgetary pressures that have emerged since the budget was first struck at the start of the year.

While the Executive made its budget in January, the Assembly must vote twice a year to secure the legal authority to spend the money.

The first vote released 45% of the budget and Mrs Foster had been seeking Assembly backing for the remaining 55%.

Mr Murphy said: "The approach the British government have taken has damaged the vulnerable - they are damaging the working poor, restricting our ability to provide frontline services and it will undermine any prospect of economic recovery for the people in this part of Ireland."

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