Hillsborough talks will focus on stabilising Stormont finances says Northern Ireland Secretary

Pa Images. Compressed for web. Royal Hillsborough Castle Northern ireland
Political talks are to take place at Hillsborough Castle. Credit: PA

Stormont's largest parties will attend talks with the Secretary of State on Monday 11 December to discuss the pressure on public finances.

It is estimated that departments need hundreds of millions in extra funding to maintain public services and just as much to settle a series of pay disputes. Chris Heaton Harris has said negotiations with the DUP on the post-Brexit Windsor Framework have not concluded amid recent speculation that Stormont could return before Christmas. 

This contradicts claims from Sinn Féin that talks have ended.

Northern Ireland's devolved government has been collapsed for almost two years because of the DUP’s ongoing boycott in protest against post-Brexit trade agreements.

The DUP has been in talks with the Government seeking assurances around Northern Ireland’s economic position within the union.

Speculation has been growing that a deal to restore Stormont is imminent. The Secretary of State recently said negotiations were in their “final, final phase”.

Mr Heaton Harris is meeting with representatives from the five main parties in the first round-table talk since July at Hillsborough Castle, Co Down.

Sinn Féin said it will use the meeting to call for a deadline for restoration, and urge the Government to deliver an accompanying financial package.

But Mr Heaton-Harris said the discussions will be focused on the sustainability of Northern Ireland’s finances and public services.

The discussions will also involve senior officials from the Northern Ireland Office, the Northern Ireland Civil Service, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury.

Mr Heaton-Harris said: “I have invited representatives from the five largest parties in Northern Ireland to discuss how the Government will work with them to stabilise the finances of a returning Executive.

“My intention is to set out how the Government would assist the parties to address the immediate challenges resulting from 21 months without a functioning Executive.

“We will focus on the need for an incoming Executive to transform public services so they can be delivered in a more sustainable way.

“We will also need to talk about what happens in the event the Executive is not reformed and it is once again left to the UK Government to set a budget for the next financial year.”

On Sunday, Sinn Féin claimed the Government had said negotiations with the DUP were over. The Northern Ireland Office and the DUP denied these claims.

Mr Heaton-Harris said: “In parallel to these meetings, I continue to engage with the DUP and am pleased that those negotiations have made significant progress over recent months, but at this point are yet to conclude.”

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald, vice president Michelle O’Neill and former Stormont finance minister Conor Murphy will attend Monday’s discussions.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson briefed party members at the weekend that people were “getting over-excited” by the announcement of all-party talks.

He asserted that there is more work to be done to secure Stormont's restoration.

In an email to party members, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the roundtable finance discussion is separate from the DUP’s restoration negotiations with the Government.

In the absence of an Executive, the budget for Northern Ireland was set by Mr Heaton-Harris and a range of Stormont departments have been dealing with a budgetary shortfall.

Despite cuts of more than £900million, Northern Ireland is on track for an overspend this year of £450million.

This rises to nearly £1billion if accounting for a pay rise for NI public sector workers.

Monday's talks will focus on how to stabilise the finances of a returning Stormont Executive.

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