N. Ireland Politics

Stormont budget: Treasury message 'blunt and stark' says Foster

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Media captionFinance minister Arlene Foster said failure to agree on welfare reform "would put spending plans at risk"

The message from the Treasury to Northern Ireland is "blunt and stark", finance minister Arlene Foster has said.

She was speaking after her meeting with chief secretary of the Treasury, Greg Hands, in London on Wednesday.

"It was a very blunt, very stark message that there was no money," she said afterwards.

"The chief secretary stressed there would be no additional funding for Northern Ireland."

She was told that Northern Ireland could not breach control totals and that welfare reform was essential.

"I have to bring that message back to the executive," she said.

Ms Foster said her meeting with Mr Hands had been "constructive".

She said she needed to set out the particular problems in Northern Ireland caused by the non-implementation of welfare reform and subsequent budget difficulties.

"We discussed how we would deal with the hole in the budget and how we could have implementation of welfare reform so that we could proceed with the budget and the rest of the Stormont Agreement," she said.

Meanwhile, Stormont's finance committee has agreed to allow Ms Foster to rush her new budget bill through the assembly.

Bill backed

The committee unanimously agreed to grant what is known as accelerated passage to the bill, which would allow it to become law by the end of July.

Earlier, the minister told committee members there was no other option.

And she dismissed critics who have called the bill a 'fantasy budget'.

It has been drawn up as if welfare reform had been agreed by the parties.

The minister told the committee that if she had not come forward with the bill "we could be in a very, very serious situation."

"We're in a serious situation as it stands, " she said.

Predicated

"The only way to go forward with this is to go forward with this budget and I know that there has been derogatory remarks in the media about fantasy budgets and all of this sort of thing.

"Let me assure you, I am not delusional.

"I know exactly what I am doing in relation to this issue and I was very clear in the assembly that it is predicated on welfare reform being implemented.

"Its the only basis on which this budget can go forward."

Image caption Sinn Féin MLA Máirtín Ó Muilleoir said he was "confident we will resolve the difficulties" on welfare reform

Mrs Foster brought forward the bill in an attempt to overcome the impasse caused by Sinn Féin's withdrawal of support for the Stormont House Agreement because of its opposition to welfare reform.

But a Sinn Féin MLA told her the obstacles could be overcome.

Fruition

Máirtín Ó Muilleoir said he is "confident we will resolve the difficulties over the next few weeks. I base that on no information, on no insider information".

"I know you are the eternal optimist," Mrs Foster replied, "and I hope that your optimism does come to fruition".

During an hour-long hearing, the minister said Northern Ireland is facing a very critical time if the Stormont House Agreement is not implemented.

She said she had listened to all of her Executive colleagues talk about the dramatic effect a lack of agreement would have on services.

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