Page last updated at 18:36 GMT, Monday, 15 December 2008

Heat debate raises temperatures

By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

The lights were twinkling on the Christmas tree in Stormont's Great Hall as assembly members made their way into the chamber to tear the wrapping paper off the executive's presents.

Nigel Dodds
'Santa' Dodds did not don a red uniform

Alright, there was no wrapping paper, and the Finance Minister Nigel Dodds didn't dress up as Santa Claus.

But ministers wanted this extra session, tacked on to the end of the Stormont term, to be the political equivalent of the family gathering in the front room handing out the gifts.

Or maybe it should have been a workplace "secret Santa" as all the executive ministers had been asked to put into the pot, freeing up cash from their departments which could then be passed to others.

Either way, having set out the challenges posed by these global hard times, Santa Dodds listed the lucky recipients of the executive's collective generosity.

Farmers building slurry tanks would get an extra 20m, there would be 4m for schools maintenance and 2.5m for road maintenance.

Other eye catching elements of the 70m package were a freeze on business rates, worth about 8m and a 150 one-off fuel poverty credit payment.


This last payment will be available to 100,000 vulnerable households receiving either pensions or income support.

It is expected to cost the executive 15m.

This fuel credit has garnered most attention, not just because of the number of people who will be eligible to receive it, but because it has been the subject of "heated" discussions at the executive table.

The credit was originally suggested by the SDLP Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie back in the days of the DUP-Sinn Fein stand-off over executive meetings.

In recent days she has complained about how her idea had been treated by other ministers, some of whom had accused her of unduly raising the public's expectations.

So did the finance minister's announcement resolve the problem, heralding an outbreak of all party peace and goodwill?

Veteran Stormont watchers will not be surprised to learn that it only changed the terms of the argument.

Minister Ritchie accused Minister Dodds of carrying out a "smash and grab raid" on her housing budget.

Her officials say she had freed up nearly 39m of resources in the hope of reallocating it to urgent tasks like social housing maintenance.

She got back, they maintain, only 9m for new housing and finding new homes for people subjected to threats.

'Scraping around'

On Stormont Live, First Minister Peter Robinson hit back insisting that no cuts had been made and he was "at a loss to understand" what Minister Ritchie was complaining about.

He said the SDLP had set themselves up as an opposition and were "scraping around in the gutter" to find ways of diverting attention from the good news in Nigel Dodds' statement.

Stormont officials pointed out that ministers had made bids totalling 350m but there had only been 70m to distribute, so some disappointment was inevitable.

They pointed out that the credit crunch package had been passed unanimously, implying that Minister Ritchie's opposition came as an afterthought. She insists that she entered her reservations as soon as she learned the detail.

So not for the first time not everyone is happy with their present.

The family feud has been waged in the Stormont corridors with officials producing competing tables of financial statistics to prove their points.

Whilst the fuel poverty credit and housing are the main battleground there are also questions about how new, for instance, the slurry tank payments are as the scheme is due to run out at the end of this year.

The MLAs headed home with the Deputy Speaker Francie Molloy wishing them all a "Happy Christmas". No one replied. Well Christmas wouldn't be Christmas, would it, without a family row?

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