(Bloomberg) -- Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party said it would study a funding package offered by the central UK government as it tries to persuade the region’s parties to restore their power-sharing administration.
The financial offer put forward by Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris includes funding for public sector pay and a stabilization fund to provide additional cash over four years as the region grapples with a budget shortfall.
But even while saying it would examine the package, the DUP — which withdrew from the region’s executive in February last year, suggested it won’t be enough. The offer “falls short of what is required to enable our public services to take place on a sustainable basis,” DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson told reporters after the meeting at Hillsborough Castle, south of Belfast.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s UK government is trying to lure Northern Ireland’s politicians back into their power-sharing executive after almost two years of stasis triggered by the DUP’s withdrawal over a post-Brexit trade deal they say undermines their position within the UK. That means Westminster is currently responsible for setting the region’s budget.
The talks are the first time Northern Ireland’s five main political parties have met since July. But asked about the prospect of a return to power sharing, Donaldson said “there is still some way to go.” Separate talks have been continuing between the UK government and the DUP over post-Brexit trade agreements.
The Northern Ireland Fiscal Council estimates the region is likely to face a cash shortfall of £1.2 billion ($1.5 billion) by 2025. Many public sector workers, including doctors, teachers and bus drivers, are striking over working conditions exacerbated by the funding gap.
Westminster recently held back some cash aimed at so-called “leveling up” projects in the region — designed to reduce economic equalities nationwide. The DUP dubbed that move economic blackmail and has also pushed to change the formula that defines how much devolved funding the region gets from the UK.
Civil servants in Stormont, meanwhile, have been warned they need to look at new revenue-raising measures to fund public services, including by introducing water charges for taxpayers in Northern Ireland. The meetings are expected to continue for a number of days.
“There’s a recognition that we are underfunded, and have been for a long, long time,” Sinn Fein leader Michelle O’Neill told reporters after the meeting. “But the fundamental question is, are the DUP prepared to lead?”
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