March 8, 2018 / 5:08 PM / a year ago

London moves to set Northern Ireland budget, step towards direct rule

BELFAST (Reuters) - The British government on Thursday moved to impose a budget directly on Northern Ireland in the latest step towards re-imposing direct rule of the region, a move likely to upset Irish nationalists and that may spark a diplomatic row with Dublin.

Britain's Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Karen Bradley arrives in Downing Street in London, March 6, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

The British region has for over a year been without a devolved power-sharing executive, a central plank of a 1998 peace deal that ended three decades of violence between pro-British unionists and Irish nationalists.

The latest round of talks between the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Irish nationalists Sinn Fein to end that stalemate broke down last month.

The government on Thursday published the outline of a budget for the financial year to April 5, 2019, which included increases in health and education budgets.

It also included 410 million pounds ($567 million) of the 1 billion pounds of funding promised as part of a deal last year by the region’s largest pro-British party, the Democratic Unionist Party, to support the Conservative Party of British Prime Minister Theresa May in parliament.

The DUP welcomed the move, with member of parliament Sammy Wilson saying in a statement that the party “welcomes the commitment by the Government to make further key decisions relating to good administration in Northern Ireland.”

Irish nationalists Sinn Fein, who fear that their unionist rivals may effectively govern the province through their influence on May, said the budget was “disappointing” and called for the convening of a British-Irish body created under the 1998 peace deal.

“The two governments must act on their responsibilities as co-guarantors of the (1998) Good Friday Agreement which provides for a British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference ... as a matter of urgency,” Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, said in a statement.

“There can be no return to direct rule,” she said.

($1 = 0.7236 pounds)

Reporting by Conor Humphries; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg

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