British minister defends $1.8b for N. Ireland

Opposition parties in England, Scotland and Wales in uproar, say funds a 'bung' to DUP to prop up Tory govt

LONDON • A leading British Cabinet minister has rejected the idea that the £1 billion (S$1.8 billion) of extra spending allocated for Northern Ireland is a "bung" - financial incentive - to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to prop up the government, arguing that it is necessary investment for a more deprived part of the United Kingdom.

Following a backlash over the deal in Scotland, Wales and parts of England, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said the money for hospitals, schools and roads in the region was good news for the whole country, reported The Guardian news site yesterday.

"Let's be clear - we all have an interest in the future prosperity and security of the province," Mr Fallon told BBC Radio 4's Today programme. "This is £1 billion that will go to improving some investment, improving the infrastructure of the province, growing the private economy of the province, and ensuring its employment rate - which is behind Wales and Scotland - catches up. We all as taxpayers, wherever we are, in England, Wales and Scotland, we all have an interest in Northern Ireland doing better."

He added: "I saw it described, ridiculously today, as some kind of bung to the DUP. The DUP is not getting this money. The money is going to invest in the people of Northern Ireland."

The Labour First Minister of Wales, Mr Carwyn Jones, had called the agreement outrageous, describing it as a "straight bung to keep a weak Prime Minister and a faltering government in office".

Under the deal, the DUP's 10 lawmakers will vote in support of Mrs Theresa May's 318 Conservatives in the 650-seat Parliament on the budget, legislative agenda, motions of confidence, including the upcoming vote on the Queen's Speech, and Brexit. In return, Mrs May agreed to raise pensions annually by at least 2.5 per cent and to keep universal winter fuel payments for the elderly, in addition to providing the extra funding for Northern Ireland.

Meanwhile, Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon, whose secessionist party also suffered major losses in the June election, has postponed plans for a second referendum on independence from the UK. "We will not introduce the legislation for an independence referendum immediately," the Scottish National Party (SNP) leader told Parliament in Edinburgh yesterday. Ms Sturgeon said she would "reset" the timetable for holding a referendum by spring 2019, when Britain is expected to leave the European Union.

SHARE THE WEALTH

We all understand that austerity is never over until we've cleared the deficit... We still have to have fiscal controls... But it's right to invest in those parts of our country that don't yet enjoy the prosperity that we take for granted in England.

MR MICHAEL FALLON, UK Defence Secretary

Ms Sturgeon said that, instead, she and her party will "put our shoulder to the wheel in seeking to influence the Brexit talks in a way that protects Scotland's interests", including pressing to stay in the single market.

The SNP leader also criticised the Conservatives' deal with the DUP, saying the money was being paid outside the Barnett formula, which is designed to distribute funds fairly between devolved nations.

"In concluding this grubby, shameless deal, the Tories have shown that they will stop at nothing to hold on to power - even sacrificing the very basic principles of devolution," she said.

But Mr Fallon argued that this was not the first time Barnett had been circumvented: "We've always made additional money available outside the Barnett formula, through city deals in Scotland and Wales, and we've made additional money available in the last few years to Northern Ireland."

The Conservative leader in Scotland, Ms Ruth Davidson, accused the SNP of hypocrisy, saying: "It's absurd for the SNP to criticise UK government spending on top of Barnett in Northern Ireland, when the exact same thing happens in Scotland."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 28, 2017, with the headline 'British minister defends $1.8b for N. Ireland'. Print Edition | Subscribe