26 September 2023

NORTHERN IRELAND: ‘Bleak’ outlook for Province’s finances

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The former head of the Northern Ireland Public Service says the financial situation facing Departments in the Province is unprecedented.

Sir David Sterling said the combination of no Budget and mounting financial pressures made the situation bleak.

Earlier, Minister for Finance, Conor Murphy warned that the Stormont Government was facing a £660 million ($A1.2 billion) overspend unless action was taken.

Mr Murphy blamed the impact of inflation and the current lack of a functioning Executive, as the United Kingdom Secretary for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris said the overspend was “unacceptable”.

“The Government fully expects the Northern Ireland Departments to take responsibility and ensure their spending remains within budgets,” Mr Heaton-Harris said.

Sir David (pictured), who retired in 2020, said he did not think the UK Treasury would welcome any request for additional money to help the situation.

“I think the Treasury’s view will be that Northern Ireland already gets more per capita than any other part of the UK,” Sir David said.

“Northern Ireland has, as well, got additional monies on a number of occasions over recent years,” he said.

“I think, if the Treasury was to be persuaded to provide some money, a bail out if you like, then I’m fairly sure they would want to attach some fairly tight strings to that.”

Sir David said he expected there would be no bail-out until such times as an Executive was formed.

The Executive has not been operating since February when the Democratic Unionist Party withdrew from the power-sharing arrangement in protest at the Northern Ireland Protocol negotiated with the European Union.

Mr Murphy said a large proportion of the increased expenditure was due to energy costs and pay pressures resulting from the cost-of-living crisis.

Because a Budget was not passed before the Executive collapsed, Departments have been working with indicative ‘spending envelopes’.

Departments were not constrained to these totals and were advised they should not make decisions to stop services where there was a “reasonable expectation” that they would receive further funding later in the financial year once a Budget was in place.

However, Minister for Justice, Naomi Long said that the restoration of the Executive would not be a magic wand to make all the financial challenges facing Stormont disappear.

“I am saying very clearly that the lack of oversight, the lack of governance, the lack of having an Executive and having timely access to funds is impacting people’s lives,” Ms Long said.

Belfast, 17 October 2022

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