Michelle O'Neill calls on DUP to renominate first minister to release budget funds

Michelle O'Neill
Michelle O’Neill Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Sinn Fein has called on the DUP to renominate a Stormont first minister on Thursday to enable the Executive to meet to agree a budget and release an additional £300million in funding.

Michelle O’Neill made the call ahead of a virtual meeting of party leaders in Northern Ireland on Thursday afternoon.

Sinn Fein Finance Minister Conor Murphy has insisted a budget cannot be struck without an executive in place, meaning an additional £300m allocated to the administration for the coming financial year cannot be accessed.

In the absence of an agreed budget, departments will have to rely on emergency arrangements to keep day-to-day services running in the 2022/23 financial year.

The impasse over the budget comes amid mounting cost of living pressures in Northern Ireland.

The Executive imploded last month when DUP First Minister Paul Givan resigned in protest at Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol. The move automatically removed Ms O’Neill from her post as deputy First Minister.

Other ministers remain in post in shadow formats but the wider administration cannot meet or take significant decisions.

Paul Givan announces his resignation at first minister Credit: Peter Morrison/PA

Mr Murphy this week received legal advice from Northern Ireland Attorney General Brenda King that said he does not have the power to bring a budget to the Assembly in the absence of an executive.

It is understood he earlier received similar advice from the Departmental Solicitor’s Office.

The advice centres on the legal interpretation of Section 64 of the 1998 Northern Ireland Act, which states that a finance minister can only lay a budget before the Assembly once it has been agreed by the Executive.

The DUP has insisted there are alternative ways to pass a budget without an executive being in place.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson Credit: Liam McBurney/PA

On Thursday morning, Ms O’Neill tweeted: “What the public need is restoration of the Executive with its full spending & decision-making powers.

“The DUP should nominate an FM so we can hold an extraordinary Executive; agree a budget & allocate the £300million available to struggling families – I’m ready to do that today.”

Ahead of Thursday’s party leaders’ meeting, the SDLP has proposed emergency measures to access the £300m.

It said its representatives met legal clerks in the Assembly and Westminster to discuss what powers are available to bring forward emergency legislation to help people with the spiralling energy costs.

Colum Eastwood Credit: Mark Marlow/PA

SDLP MLA Mark H Durkan has started work in the Assembly to explore whether an accelerated Private Member’s Bill could be used to release funds.

And at Westminster, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has engaged with Secretary of State Brandon Lewis to assess whether a UK Government intervention could help to resolve the issue.

Mr Eastwood is to make a formal proposal at the meeting of the party leaders.

“It is incumbent on all of us, whether in the Assembly or at Westminster to now work collectively to explore what can be done to help people now,” he said.

“We cannot sit idly by and wait for this crisis to consume families here.

“If legal advice is stopping the Finance Minister from spending this money, then we need to find another way to get this money out fast.”

Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie told the BBC Good Morning Ulster programme that the DUP should renominate a first minister to allow the budget to pass.

He said: “I would plead with Sir Jeffrey to, even in a limited capacity, to renominate so that we could have a budget and then, if he so wishes, to collapse it again.

“But we never thought collapsing the Executive was the right thing to do in the first place.

“We need a budget and we need a budget so we can have the funds to be able to support people here in Northern Ireland with the huge cost-of-living crisis.”

DUP Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots said money could be handed out on the basis of last year’s budget.

He told the BBC: “Conor Murphy’s budget can’t be passed so you go back to last year’s budget and spending could be based upon last year’s budget and the departments be awarded funding.”