The price of peace: Westminster mulls another £1 billion bung for Northern Ireland

Dublin ̵1; What is the price of peace? For Northern Ireland’s warring politicians, the answer is often surprisingly simple – a cool £1,000,000,000.

Half a dozen senior insiders in the British government and Northern Ireland civil service have told POLITICO that Westminster is considering an offer of £1 billion to boost the region’s public services if its main political parties lose power before the end of the year. Sharing restores government. ,

The deal will mark the third time in seven years Westminster has paid £1bn to bring Northern Irish parties back into favor – but is still seen as the price to pay for breaking the year-long political deadlock.

“When you look at previous points in our history where there has been a crisis, there has always been money to sweeten the deal,” said David Stirling, former head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service.

“I’m sure the parties are working hard to get something like this done at the moment.”

Such a deal would form part of a wider carrot-and-stick approach by London after Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris implemented it on Thursday. immediate deduction The shutdown is creating a nightmare for civil servants already struggling to maintain health, education and transport services in the most state-dependent corner of the United Kingdom, over most government departments in the region.

Officials and senior civil servants in Heaton-Harris’ Northern Ireland Office tasked with actually making the cuts strongly disagree on the strategy being deployed – but privately only one end game is expected: a new political settlement that persuades the Democratic Unionist Party to return to government with their Irish republican opponents, Sinn Féin.

“The secretary of state sees value in easing the pain in the short term to achieve the needed gains in the medium term,” said one of 10 permanent secretaries for Northern Ireland. ,

“We do not accept orders to make decisions that, frankly, he needs to make himself.”

Heaton-Harris argues that the only way for British unionist and Irish nationalist leaders to manage the coming financial pain would be to take back the reins of power and revive their cross-community executive, whose central goal is american arbitration Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

And he didn’t dismiss behind-the-scenes talk that any such success would be accompanied by a special financial sweetener — a well-established pattern that dates back to the early days of power-sharing a quarter-century ago.

“The aim was not to punish anyone with this budget. The aim is to ensure that public services can continue in the absence of an executive,” Heaton-Harris told reporters after meeting the leaders of the DUP, Sinn Féin and three other parties at Hillsborough Castle outside Belfast.

DUP leader Sir Geoffrey Donaldson speaking to the media after talks with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at the Culloden Hotel in Belfast | Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

“I want to see an executive moving forward, and so I continue to hold talks with DUP representatives,” he said.

Democratic Unionist Collapsed executive last year, in protest against the post-Brexit rules agreed between the UK and the EU that make up Easy for Northern Ireland to trade with the neighboring Republic of Ireland than with the rest of the United Kingdom.

Asked what the UK government could offer to the DUP as an inducement, Heaton-Harris said: “Let’s see where [the talks] to lead.”

Heard this before?

Certainly, the DUP is no stranger to the sector trading raw power for hard cash.

party won a previous £1 billion bonus As part of Northern Ireland’s 2017 confidence-and-supply agreement to support Theresa May’s minority government in Westminster.

and the UK government paid the same again as part of its “New Decade, New Approach” deal to revive power-sharing at Stormont in 2020 after a breakdown over the previous three years.

Both proposals were dwarfed by the granddaddy of them all: the breakthrough 2007 deal that persuaded the DUP to end its historic refusal to talk with Sinn Féin and form its first alliance with the centuries-old foe. Then-prime minister Gordon Brown promised that Northern Ireland – a country the size of Connecticut with fewer than 2 million inhabitants – would be a a staggering £51 billion In the coming decade if the DUP agreed to play ball.

This time Heaton-Harris and her junior NIO minister, fellow Brexit enthusiast Steve Baker, are publicly playing hardball, insisting that the UK’s own overburdened finances mean Northern Ireland cannot expect another bonanza. Could

Baker said that Northern Ireland is already unfairly outpacing UK finances compared to Scotland, Wales and especially his home nation of England. “Northern Ireland gets about 20 per cent more per capita than England and my constituents. It’s hard for me to sell to my voters,” he said.

Asked about speculation from his own officials that a reformed Stormont executive could be tempted by £1 billion, Baker said any additional finance should be linked to long-delayed structural reform, particularly Increased or new charges for services that are free or provided free of charge. Discounted rates in Northern Ireland.

“Payments like this have not served Northern Ireland well in the long run. They have allowed reforms to be postponed,” Baker said. “We are not going to solve them with huge amounts of cash, that has not worked in the past and will be difficult for the rest of the UK to defend”

Yet that scenario has been quietly explored for weeks in talks involving the NIO, Stormont civil servants, the DUP and Sinn Féin, officials from all four groups told POLITICO.

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Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris argues that the only way for British unionist and Irish nationalist leaders to manage the coming financial pain would be to take back the reins of power and revive their cross-community executive. Pool Photo by Liam McBurney / WPA / Getty Images

While £1 billion sounds like an eye-watering sum, officials say the only way to prevent Northern Ireland’s already creaking public services from getting worse is to increase the budget in parallel with inflation, which is a common problem across the UK. remains above 10 percent. The Northern Ireland Financial Council – to advise the non-existent Stormont Executive – Estimate That means an increase of more than £800 million in spending this year, just to stand still.

Sterling’s successor as civil service chief, Jane Brady, wrote privately to the NIO this week warning that spending cuts of this scale “would cause permanent damage” and were “simply not deliverable.” Her letter was immediately leaked to the press, prompting widespread unease at Stormont.

Heaton-Harris plans will include cut spending for seven out of nine government departments, and only a 0.3 per cent increase in the biggest budget – health services. Education, the second biggest expense, is to be cut by 2.4 percent, which union heads say makes teacher strikes all but mandatory.

Sinn Féin’s former finance minister for Northern Ireland, Conor Murphy, left Hillsborough on Thursday Condemnation Heaton-Harris’ cut as “unethical and indefensible”. Democratic Unionists denounced the cuts “a hammer blow” in schools, and said that politicians were treating poor youth “pawns,

Nevertheless, as he left the palace, DUP leader Geoffrey Donaldson struck an apparently relaxed tone, describing Heaton-Harris’ budget constraints as only a “temporary arrangement”.

As always in Northern Ireland, a behind-the-scenes deal could be just around the corner.