Shropshire Star

Stormont leaders request face-to-face talks with PM over ‘upfront investment’

First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the Executive’s priority was to secure a ‘proper funding model’ from the Treasury.

Northern Ireland First Minister Michelle O’Neill and deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly

Stormont’s leaders have requested face-to-face talks with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as they continue to press the Government for more funding.

First Minister Michelle O’Neill and deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly met Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris in Belfast on Thursday for discussions on Stormont’s financial challenges.

The meeting came a day after it emerged that resource bids from Stormont ministers for money to alleviate pressures on public services in Northern Ireland amounted to more than three times the funding available to Finance Minister Caoimhe Archibald in the forthcoming budget.

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Chris Heaton-Harris
Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly described discussions with Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, pictured, as ‘constructive’ (Lucy North/PA)

On Wednesday, Stormont’s Finance Committee was told Ms Archibald had received bids totalling £3.2 billion for funding from her resource budget, but had only £1 billion to allocate once previously earmarked funding was taken into account.

Ms O’Neill said the Executive’s priority was to secure a “proper funding model” from the Treasury. She said the devolved administration was in a “very difficult position” and setting a budget was going to be “very challenging across the board”.

The Sinn Fein vice president insisted the Executive was up for the challenge of reforming and restructuring how public services were delivered in the region to achieve greater efficiencies, but she said there was a need for more funding upfront to enable that transformation work to be undertaken at the same time as “trying to keep the lights on” in terms of day-to-day services.

“We’re committed to transformation, doing things better, actually delivering our services better,” Ms O’Neill told reporters after meeting Mr Heaton-Harris.

“But we need investment upfront in which to do that. So that’s the case that we’ve made today. And alongside that, we’ve actually asked for a meeting with the Prime Minister now because we think we now need it to be elevated to that level. We want to do transformation, we want to deliver better services, but we need investment upfront in which to do that.

“So that’s the space that we’re in. We’re not giving up on this. We want the public to know that we’re continuing with this battle, that we are fighting the good fight in terms of good public services here. And we know that we’ve got work to do, but we hope that we can get this meeting with the Prime Minister to allow us to advance this conversation.”

Ms Little-Pengelly described the discussions with the Secretary of State as “constructive”.

She said she and Ms O’Neill assured Mr Heaton-Harris that they were “up for the conversation around transformation and sustainability”.

Minister of Finance Caoimhe Archibald
Minister of Finance Caoimhe Archibald has been meeting ministers ahead of introducing a final budget paper to the Executive (Liam McBurney/PA)

“We need that across our public services,” she added.

“But that does require investment and it does require ensuring our public services are working now while that work continues.”

She said the budget picture facing Stormont was “particularly challenging”.

“Of course, we know that we need to do the transformation as well, we have to make hard decisions, that is inevitably part of the process, we are up for making those hard decisions to ensure that our public services work,” Ms Little-Pengelly said.

“That’s what I believe the people of Northern Ireland demand of us, but we need, and we can only do that by working with the UK Government in terms of getting that funding for investment while ensuring that our public services can continue to operate.”

The DUP MLA said it was important that the Government also provided additional capital funding to ensure Northern Ireland had adequate infrastructure going forward.

“I emphasised the need for that capital investment, not least in terms of our water and sewage systems, in terms of our schools, in terms of our hospitals, in relation to our roads,” she said.

“These are matters that are really, really important to everyone throughout Northern Ireland and it’s important that we do secure that capital budget to enable us to have the type of infrastructure that supports economic prosperity and the rolling out of good public services right throughout Northern Ireland.”

The UK Government pledged a £3.3 billion package to support the return of devolution in Northern Ireland earlier this year.

The new Executive agreed a short delay in setting a budget for 2024/25 while ministers got to grips with their departmental priorities.

Ms Archibald has been meeting ministers ahead of introducing a final budget paper to the Executive. The budget is expected to be brought to the Assembly before the end of April.

Demand on the budget far outstrips the funding available.

In the resource budget, Ms Archibald had £1 billion to allocate once previously earmarked funding was provided. Her department had received funding bids from ministers totalling £3.2 billion.

From her capital budget, there was £1.8 billion of funding available for allocation against bids totalling £2.8 billion.

The budget introduced by Ms Archibald will cover only the 2024/25 financial year. The Finance Minister cannot currently legally introduce a multi-year budget as this is the last year of a Treasury spending review period.

The region’s director of public spending at the Department of Finance Joanne McBurney updated MLAs on the Finance Committee on the budget situation on Wednesday afternoon.

“The demands on our budget, as you will imagine, far outstrip the funding we have available. Many times over, in fact,” she said.

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