Stormont welfare stand-off may be close to resolution
Outline agreement has finally been reached to resolve Stormont's spending stalemate, it was claimed last night.
Sinn Fein denied agreement has been reached but said "progress has been made".
Finance Minister Simon Hamilton has distributed a paper of proposals to his fellow Executive ministers, following months of protracted negotiations between Sinn Fein and the DUP.
It is understood to set out how immediate spending pressures – including health – will be dealt with and whether fines imposed by the Treasury over the Executive's failure to implement welfare reform will be paid in the short to medium term.
Sinn Fein has said the welfare reforms are not linked to spending monitoring and is refusing to implement the cuts.
There will have to be a full meeting of the Executive before any package is finalised, and that will not happen until next week.
There may then have to be a recall of the Assembly to endorse the decision, which would likely be later on next week.
The absence of a formal paper at the last Executive meeting proved ministers were still some way from a resolution on the June monitoring round – the quarterly process by which money that departments have failed to spend is redirected to other priorities.
There was disagreement between the two main Executive parties over whether some of the money should be put aside to pay the Treasury penalties.
First Minister Peter Robinson had warned Northern Ireland will lose £80m from its budget – but his total did not include the fines already being imposed over welfare reform, which amount to more than £34m so far.
The additional £80m is already earmarked for capital projects and if left unspent will have to be handed back to the Treasury, which Mr Robinson said would be "absurd".
Following the last meeting, however, Sinn Fein ministers John O'Dowd (Education), Caral Ni Chuilin (Arts, Culture and Leisure) and Michelle O'Neill (Agriculture) said the proposals arising from monitoring of departmental spending were "unacceptable".
Officials continued to work over the past two weeks and senior sources this week were insisting a deal was close.
Former Finance Minister Sammy Wilson said yesterday he "assumed" agreement had been reached – or was in the process of being reached.
The on-going delay had also begun to throw departmental accounting procedures into chaos, with accounting officers unable to sign off on major projects without the guarantee of forthcoming finance.
STORY SO FAR
Sinn Fein has so far refused to implement welfare reforms demanded by London.
Treasury penalties so far amount to £13m by the end of the last financial year and around £7.2m every month since – a total of £34.6m.
Finance Minister Simon Hamilton said by the next financial year – 2015/16 – the penalties will rise to £9.5m every month.