Northern Ireland Budget aims to 'make sure public services can continue' during Stormont stalemate

The secretary of state has said the purpose of the budget he published for Northern Ireland "was not to punish anybody".

Chris Heaton-Harris made the comments after holding a round-table discussion with representatives from Stormont's main political parties.

It has fallen to the Conservative minister to set the financial settlement due to a lack of executive at Stormont.

The document published on Thursday morning includes an offer of "flexibility" on a repayment of a nearly £300m advance payment to Treasury.

Speaking to media in Hillsborough, Mr Heaton-Harris said "many people were expecting it to be a bit worse than it's turned out to be".

He explained that Stormont accrued an overspend of £297m last year which he said "should be repaid this year, but thanks to the good offices of my officials, we have persuaded the Treasury that that money should be rolled forward another year" but that there are conditions attached.

"The purpose was not to punish anybody with this budget," he told reporters at Hillsborough.

"The purpose was to make sure public services can continue in the absence of an executive."

The five main political parties at Stormont aired concerns about the financial settlement after meeting with the secretary of state, with DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson describing it as "disappointing".

His party boycotted the power-sharing institutions since the last Northern Ireland Assembly election due to its concerns over the Northern Ireland Protocol - a post-Brexit trade agreement.

"We welcome the fact that the Treasury are not going to deduct in its entirely the £297m overspend from last year, that will offer some relief for government departments although we note that this means there won't be any further flexibility this year, either in terms of Barnett Consequentials or savings," said the DUP leader.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson added: "There are major challenges here and we are concerned about the way in which the Northern Ireland Office has been playing politics with some of our public services."

When pushed on whether his party would re-enter an executive, Sir Jeffrey said: "Let's not mislead people in Northern Ireland that opening the doors of Stormont is a quick fix, it isn't.

"The money, our allocations from the budget comes from Westminster, the decisions taken about that allocation are taken in Westminster."

Meanwhile Sinn Féin's Conor Murphy said the secretary of state's budget would "devastate public services" and would punish those who rely on them.

"It hasn't built into it any account for inflation at all which in-effect means a reduction in spending for all departments," said the former finance minister.

He added: "If the idea of this is to punish the DUP for not being in the executive, the only people who will suffer as a consequence of this will be people who rely on public services and people who deliver public services.

"I have to say that the absence of an executive is really reprehensible at this stage when this is the outcome of it for the people we represent right across the north."

Alliance MLA Andrew Muir said the round-table meeting was "grim and truly bleak". "The departments have go their envelopes in terms of expenditure for the year ahead but they have to make decision about how they divvy that up," he said.

"There is still a lack of clarity around the governance piece in terms of how those decisions will be made."

SDLP MLA Matthew O'Toole outlined his concerns that there will be a "real squeeze on public services".

"People in Northern Ireland didn't ask for that, they didn't vote for that and they don't deserve it."

He added that "today's discussion was frustrating in that we dont have clarity yet on when we're going to have an executive, we don't have clarity yet on when we're going to have locally elected ministers."

Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie described the budget as "quite grim".

"It's been put to us and it's difficult to have anything without a government up and running," he told reporters.

As for reestablishing an executive, Mr Beattie said he felt that "the Westminster Government and DUP are talking about what can be done in the margins to get the executive up and running.

"We are moving towards something in the Autumn but we're going at a bit of a snails pace at this moment in time."

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