Any Treasury package to accompany the return of Stormont devolution would be dependent on the local parties agreeing a “proper” plan for government, Chris Heaton Harris has said.
The Northern Ireland Secretary said previous commitments by Stormont leaders to reform public services in exchange for past UK government funding packages had not been followed through into action.
He was commenting after it emerged that the region’s main parties appear set to ask the Treasury for a £1 billion-plus package to support the return of powersharing.
The size of the potential pitch for extra Government funding was discussed at a meeting of the four largest parties and the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Jayne Brady, in Belfast on Thursday.
Parties are also likely to seek longer-term funding commitments from the Treasury alongside a one-off package to address Stormont’s short-term funding crisis.
Such measures could include reform of the Barnett formula used by the Government to calculate the block grant allocated to Northern Ireland each year.
On the agenda at the meeting convened by Dr Brady were discussions on Stormont’s financial problems, the challenges arising from the current governance gap, and planning geared around a potential return of devolution.
On a visit to a sports centre in Lisburn on Thursday afternoon, Mr Heaton Harris was asked whether the £1.1 billion figure that emerged from the earlier meeting was a realistic ask of Treasury. He declined to be drawn.
“I’m not the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I’m the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and I will do everything I can to get the executive back up and running – but let’s take it step by step,” he said.
He added: “I also want to be a bit of a cheerleader for Northern Ireland when the executive is up and running, but it does need a plan for government.
“Previous iterations of UK government have given big chunks of money to Northern Ireland politicians to spend on reform and transformation of public services in the past and it just hasn’t materialised.
“So, the fact that they are coming together to look at a (plan), not just saying the words ‘this is a plan for government’, but actually coming together and building that plan, I take that as being really positive. And I look forward to working with them on it.”
Asked if the Treasury would provide extra funding in exchange for fresh commitments to reform public service delivery in the region, he said: “I mean there’s no extra money available at the moment. But I think it would be a different situation if the executive is up and running and if there was a proper plan for government.”
Civil servants have estimated that Stormont departments need hundreds of millions of pounds in extra funding to maintain public services at their current level this year.
Hundreds of millions more would be needed to settle a series of public sector pay disputes in the region.
Senior civil servants are currently running public services in the region in the ongoing absence of devolution.
Mr Heaton Harris met health unions on Thursday to discuss their pay demands. He said he understood their frustrations but insisted he did not have the ability to implement a salary increase this year.
“It just underlines, doesn’t it, the fact that we need an executive up and running in Northern Ireland to make those political decisions, because I literally do not have the power to intervene,” he said.
The DUP is blocking the powersharing institutions in protest at post-Brexit trading arrangements.
The four parties eligible to participate in a ministerial executive if it was resurrected – Sinn Fein, the DUP, Alliance and UUP – attended the meeting convened by Dr Brady at Stormont Castle.
Afterwards, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson addressed mounting speculation that his party is preparing to return to Stormont.
Sir Jeffrey said the DUP’s focus remained “very firmly” on finding a resolution to the dispute over Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.
He said discussions continued with the Government on potential legislation that would address its concerns over sovereignty and access to trade with Great Britain.
“The DUP focus remains very firmly on getting a resolution to the difficulties we’ve had that have arisen from the Northern Ireland Protocol,” he said.
“We continue to engage with the Government on finding solutions that restore our place within the United Kingdom and our ability to trade within the internal market of the United Kingdom. And that work continues and is essential if we are to see Stormont restored on a stable basis.”
When asked by reporters whether it was a case of when, not if, devolution will return, he said: “I’m an optimist and I am in the business of delivering for the people of Northern Ireland, the people who’ve supported us.
“Of course, we’ve been very clear, we want to see Stormont restored, but it must be restored on a stable and sustainable basis.”
Mr Heaton Harris said he was “confident” the Government could provide assurances to the DUP, but he said he had yet to receive any specific “asks” from the party.
Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill earlier called on the DUP to “get off the fence” and show the political will to restore powersharing.
“Civil servants are in a very desperately difficult situation in taking decisions where there’s no democratic accountability,” she said.
“That’s not good enough for the public here.”
Ms O’Neill rejected the suggestion it may be the autumn before the DUP returns to Stormont.
“I don’t think the autumn timeframe is an acceptable timeframe,” she said.
“I think where we need to be is around the executive table today working together, actually trying to stave off some of the worst impact of the Tory austerity agenda.”
On Wednesday, Ms O’Neill claimed Mr Heaton Harris was showing no “urgency” in efforts to restore the Stormont executive.
The Northern Ireland Secretary rejected that assertion on Thursday.
“On that she’s wrong, she can’t be right all the time,” he said.
The meeting with Dr Brady followed last week’s local council elections in Northern Ireland.
The elections saw Sinn Fein emerge as the largest party in local government for the first time in Northern Ireland, replicating its result in the Assembly election last year when it became the biggest party at Stormont.
While the DUP lost its position as the largest party at council level, it consolidated its position as the main unionist party by winning the same number of seats as it secured in the last local government election in 2019.
Alliance Party deputy leader Stephen Farry said the Stormont parties needed to make a “collective ask” to Treasury on the size and shape of a financial package that might accompany a return to devolution.
They said the sum needed was in excess of £1 billion.
“Obviously, this will involve a certain negotiation with the Treasury,” he said.
“There will be some degree of resistance there, there will be a degree of scepticism, not least because we’ve had previous financial packages for Northern Ireland before, which haven’t always necessarily transformed the situation, they have maybe plugged gaps but haven’t really seen major change in terms of outcome.
“So lessons will have to be learned from that and I imagine there will be a degree of conditionality from the Treasury and wanting to see Northern Ireland actually adhering to whatever commitments we can give in return for any support that they may be able to provide.”
Dr Farry said Stormont officials were working up documents on the financial picture to inform further talks among the parties on what they may ask from the Treasury.
UUP leader Doug Beattie said Stormont needed around £1.1 billion in additional funding from the Treasury.
“That’s the basic baseline figure that maybe we’re talking about, but do add on to that any monies we need for transformation, if we’re going to invest to transform, that’s going to bump that up as well,” he said.
“So we are looking at excess of a billion pounds, I think.”