Civil servants in Northern Ireland have issued a final budget deadline for Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party to agree a new deal or face intervention from Westminster.
Officials have been running the devolved nation since March as a result of political deadlock following elections to the Stormont Assembly, but legal spending limits covering the current arrangements mean a new budget must be set by the end of November.
Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire has now revealed that Belfast-based civil servants believe such a move would only be possible if a new executive were created and proposals tabled by the week commencing November 6. If that does not happen Westminster would intervene and set the budget.
In a written ministerial statement, Brokenshire has said such a deadline would require agreement to be reached between Sinn Féin and the DUP – whose Westminster MPs have agreed a confidence and supply deal with the Conservatives to keep Theresa May’s minority Conservative government in power – by the last week of October.
Brokenshire said that while Sinn Féin and the DUP were “seeking to find agreement”, their remaining issues were “small in number but highly difficult and sensitive”, particularly in relation to language and culture.
“The outlook for an imminent resolution is not positive. Time is running out,” he said.
“Without an agreement, we are on a glide path to increasing intervention by the UK government.”
Brokenshire saluted the NI Civil Service for dealing with the lack of an executive with the “utmost professionalism” but said limits set out by the Northern Ireland Act 1998 meant budget legislation had to be in place by the end of November at the latest.
He said that to comply with the NI Civil Service’s deadline, the last week he could introduce executive-formation legislation to Westminster, which would allow for a devolved budget to be created in Northern Ireland, would be the week commencing 30 October.
“I will only legislate in this way on the basis of a written agreement between the parties,” he said.
“If this is not forthcoming before 30 October, the only option remaining would be to legislate for a budget at Westminster. This is not a step I wish to take, nor one I would take lightly.
“My strong preference is for a restored executive in Northern Ireland to take forward its own budget. Without an executive, though, it would be grossly remiss for the UK government not to step in and take action to ensure the continued funding of critical services in Northern Ireland.”
Northern Ireland’s current political deadlock followed Sinn Féin’s decision to pull out of power-sharing arrangements with the DUP in protest over the mishandling of a renewable heating initiative in January.
Both parties emerged from March’s elections as the assembly’s two largest parties but have so far failed to agree new power-sharing arrangements.
Last week, the NI Civil Service launched an unusual recruitment process to identify potential candidates to fill permanent secretary posts that are currently not vacant.
An advertisement on its recruitment website said a “merit list” would be created, with candidates being used to fill vacancies that arose over its anticipated 18-month lifespan.