The North’s political parties could ask the UK Treasury for an extra £1 billion (€1.15 billion) to address the funding crisis faced by any reformed Executive.
This financial request will form part of discussions aimed at re-establishing the power-sharing government at Stormont, which has been mothballed for a year due to a boycott by the DUP over post-Brexit trading arrangements.
Alliance and the UUP said £1 billion was the minimum needed to address the budget deficit and public sector pay disputes and begin work on improving public services.
However, Northern Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said the Executive needed to be up and running and a “have a proper plan for government” before the scale of a potential financial package would be discussed.
Asked by reporters if it was likely the UK government would accede to such a request, Mr Heaton-Harris replied: “I honestly don’t know the answer to that question.”
But he said he was “very pleased to hear that the parties are talking about the future and not looking to the past, because we need to move forward now”.
He said that “parties can work together in a positive way to move this forward” was “a good sign, a good start.”
On Thursday, the leaders of the parties entitled to form an Executive – Sinn Féin, the DUP, Alliance and the UUP – met the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Jayne Brady, to discuss preparatory work towards re-establishing the devolved government at Stormont.
The civil service estimates it must find an additional £800 million in cuts and revenue-raising measures following the budget set last month by Mr Heaton-Harris, who took the step in the absence of an Executive.
In a letter to the party leaders, Ms Brady highlighted the “extremely challenging” budgetary situation facing Northern Ireland, which “will inevitably cause enduring harm to public service delivery, society and the economy” and was compounded by the “governance gap” created by the absence of ministers.
Following the meeting, Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said there needed to be a “collective ask” to the UK Treasury and he expected there would be a “degree of conditionality” attached.
There has been a renewed focus on the need to restore the North’s Assembly and Executive following Sinn Féin’s success in last week’s council elections, which saw it gain almost 40 seats and overtake the DUP as the largest party of local government.
On Thursday, its vice president and the North’s first minister-designate, Michelle O’Neill, said the DUP should “get off the fence and actually join the rest of us and get into the Executive”.
Referencing speculation that the DUP is preparing for an autumn return to Stormont, Ms O’Neill said this was not an “acceptable timeframe” and politicians needed to get back around the Executive table “today”.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said his party’s focus “remains very firmly on getting a resolution to the difficulties we’ve had that have arisen from the Northern Ireland protocol. We’ve been very clear, we want to see Stormont restored, but it must be restored on a stable and sustainable basis”.
Mr Donaldson said the DUP “continue to engage” with the UK government over legislation which would address his party’s concerns over sovereignty and trading arrangements post-Brexit. Mr Heaton-Harris said he was awaiting “definitive asks” from the DUP. – Additional reporting: PA