Northern Ireland seeks enhanced UK financial support
By Amanda Ferguson
BELFAST (Reuters) -Northern Ireland's new power-sharing executive called on Britain on Monday to boost its offer to ease the region's strained budget beyond the 3.3 billion pounds ($4.2 billion) included in a deal to restore the devolved administration.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak met political leaders in Belfast on Monday after convincing the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) last week to drop its two-year boycott of the regional assembly by easing post-Brexit trade frictions.
Sunak said the funding offer was "significant and generous", although his minister for the region, Chris Heaton-Harris, did not rule out the new administration potentially negotiating an increase.
"Now we will have ministers for finance and for the economy, who will be able to talk directly to their counterparts in His Majesty's Treasury, and if there's data to prove otherwise I'm quite sure they'll find a listening ear," Heaton-Harris told BBC Radio.
The deal with the DUP paved the way for a new power-sharing coalition to be formed on Saturday, with Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill as first minister, a first for an Irish nationalist in a historic milestone for the British region.
The British government offered the funding in December after talks with all parties. London had refused to increase Northern Ireland's 14.2 billion pound annual budget earlier last year, despite inflation reaching a multi-decade high.
That led to the biggest public sector strike in a generation last month, with workers angry at not receiving any increase in pay, unlike colleagues in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Northern Ireland's ministers said the 584 millions pounds set aside for pay fell short of the "known pressures" of 690 million pounds and that the rest of the package was also below the long-term level of need to deliver public services.
The two-year shutdown has also increased calls for reform of the rules that have allowed the largest party on either side to repeatedly disable power-sharing for long periods.
Sunak and his Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar, said last year they would be open to discussing reforms with the parties if power-sharing was restored. Varadkar said on Monday that a "bedding down" period was needed before such considerations.
"I think the focus for now and certainly for the next few months is on getting the executive up and running," he said after a meeting with Sunak.
(Additional reporting by Sarah Young in London; Writing by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Alex Richardson and Nick Macfie)