NI secretary: New legislation will 'help to stabilise finances' as devolution deal deadline expires

Chris Heaton-Harris says he will act to "support Northern Ireland departments" to stabilise public services
Photo: Thomas Krych/ZUMA Press Wire

The Northern Ireland secretary has pledged to use legislation to address the ongoing political deadlock and protect public services after the deadline for an agreement to restore devolution expired.

Northern Ireland’s political parties had until midnight on 19 January to agree to a deal Chris Heaton-Harris put forward in December, which would provide a £3.3bn package in return for the executive being restored. The Democratic Unionist Party has been blocking power-sharing since February 2022 over objections to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

In a statement released immediately after the deadline passed, Heaton-Harris said: “I intend to introduce new legislation which will take a pragmatic, appropriate and limited approach to addressing the executive formation period and support Northern Ireland departments to manage the immediate and evident challenges they face in stabilising public services and finances.”

He added that “events” in Northern Ireland last week – understood to refer to a day of mass strike action on 18 January by civil servants and staff in several other public services – had “shown the urgent action which is required to address a whole range of issues facing Northern Ireland”.

Departments have faced significant financial pressure in recent years, exacerbated by the absence of a functioning executive, which has not sat in nearly two years.

Last year, the budget imposed on Northern Ireland by the Westminster government left departments needing to find 10% cuts because it did not cover necessary spending, and by November, Northern Ireland was headed for a £1bn overspend

Among other things, budget pressures have curbed pay rises for civil servants. Most Northern Ireland civil servants were awarded a flat-rate pay adjustment of just £552 in April, which the NIPSA trade union said would be worth less than 1% to most staff.

Ahead of last week’s strike, NICS head Jayne Brady wrote to Heaton-Harris urging the Northern Ireland secretary to address what she called an “unacceptable public sector pay disparity” in a bid to avert the walkout.

She said an estimated £634m was needed to maintain "broad parity" between Northern Ireland civil servants and those in England, Scotland and Wales, and that she was worried about “public services, citizen safety and wellbeing, and the stability of public finances”.

Last week, NIPSA said that in tying funds for pay rises to the devolution-restoring agreement, Heaton-Harris had “dangled the promise of money in front of workers, while withholding the very funds they desperately need”.

“He must meet the demands of the union for inflation-busting pay rises, safe staffing and a needs-based budget to properly fund public services both now and in the future – and he must do so immediately,” the union’s general secretary, Carmel Gates, said.

Heaton-Harris said he would update parliament on next steps, but did not say when.

“I am disappointed that the parties have been unable to elect a speaker to the assembly and restore the Northern Ireland Executive before the deadline set in law,” he said.

“I remain of the belief that a sitting Northern Ireland Executive is best placed to act quickly and effectively to resolve those issues,” he added.

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