Calls grow for financial aid from UK Government after Northern Ireland floods
Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill has called on the UK Government to step in and arrange financial support for businesses in Northern Ireland devastated by recent flooding.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and MLAs from the other Stormont parties joined calls for more funding from Westminster to enable businesses to return to trading.
Ms O’Neill visited Downpatrick, where businesses were beginning the clean-up operation after some were nearly entirely submerged in water for days.
Areas of counties Down, Antrim and Armagh suffered flooding after heavy rain fell last week.
Work continued across the weekend in Downpatrick to pump the floodwater out of the town.
The ongoing collapse of the Stormont Assembly has left senior civil servants leading government departments with limited powers.
Ms O’Neill said the business community in Downpatrick was “absolutely traumatised and devastated” by the recent flooding.
“There’s no way to sugar coat the depth of feeling here among the local business community who are now wondering about how they’re going to pick up the pieces and actually rebuild their businesses,” she said.
“Clearly for the last number of days the effort has been on the immediacy of the flooding issue itself, but now very quickly minds are turning towards how they’re going to get through the weeks and months ahead.
“The very clear demand of the local business community here is that there is a strong financial package put in place to help them get through and to rebuild their businesses, and that must be forthcoming.
“There is no executive in place at this time. The business community here don’t want to hear the politicking, they want to hear what does a support package look like.”
Ms O’Neill said she would call on Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris to “get his cheque book out”.
“I would call on Chris Heaton-Harris to get the money on the ground to support these businesses, here in Downpatrick, but in Newry, Portadown and other areas that have also been impacted,” she said.
“There shouldn’t be any nonsense, there shouldn’t be any politicking, what there needs to be here is real practical support, and that comes in the form of finances.
“They were able to do something in England, so why can’t they do it here in the absence of an executive?”
Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Hilary Benn criticised the level of support for victims of recent flooding in the region.
Mr Benn compared the situation with the aftermath of Storm Babet in England when a number of support schemes were announced.
“In Northern Ireland, all there is at the moment is the scheme of emergency financial assistance that has been activated,” he told the BBC.
“That means homeowners, but not businesses, can get £1,000 – and that is not enough.”
Mr Benn said he wrote to Mr Heaton-Harris on Saturday to ask what assistance the Government could provide to businesses and homes in Northern Ireland.
He said the minister responded on Sunday, and said he is “working with the Northern Ireland Civil Service to see what can be done as quickly as possible to deal with the impacts of the floods”.
“I’m looking forward to hearing what the outcome of that is,” Mr Benn said.
“This is a crisis, people are in trouble, they need help. It’s very simple, and not having an executive in Northern Ireland doesn’t help because it’s at times like this you really need your government.”
The DUP has remained out of the Assembly for more than a year in protest at post-Brexit trading arrangements.
The party remains in talks with the Government to address unionist concerns at the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Windsor Framework.
Sir Jeffrey said his party is working hard to help businesses and homeowners affected by the flooding.
He said even if Stormont was sitting, it “doesn’t have a big pot of money”.
“It is a priority for us, but at the end of the day, let’s be clear about this, Stormont is projecting an overspend this year of hundreds of millions of pounds.
“It doesn’t have a big pot of money sitting there ready to be handed over, that’s why I’m going to be at Westminster talking to the people who can deliver that additional support over and above the rates relief scheme and the £1,000 for householders affected by flooding,” he told the BBC.
“More needs to be done, we’re working on that. We’ll work with the Government to deliver the support that people need, including for farmers as well.”
Alliance MLA for South Down Patrick Brown, whose constituency office in Market Lane was damaged by floods, called for Mr Heaton-Harris to provide financial aid to businesses, some of whom have seen damage estimated at more than £100,000.
“I think all Stormont departments have to chip in and support businesses to come out of this as well,” he said.
“But ultimately that leadership needs to come from the Secretary of State, and we need Westminster to reach in their pocket because we know what the current financial landscape is like in Northern Ireland.
“We obviously don’t have an executive there or anyone to show leadership in that regard politically. So we need them to step up.”
SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole, who visited businesses in Downpatrick on Monday, said the scenes were “heartbreaking”.
“I grew up in this town. I know the businesses on the street, I grew up with them, shopped in them, they supported the local community for years and generations in some cases,” he said.
“They’re facing devastation. They need support, they need money, they need cash, and they need a proper plan for this town to recover from what’s happened.
“It is frankly shocking that we don’t have proper clarity on the support they’re going to get yet.”
Mr O’Toole said his message to Mr Heaton-Harris was “don’t wait any longer”.
“People here need support. This isn’t a political game. This isn’t about putting pressure on people politically one way or the other,” he said.
Mr O’Toole added: “Chris Heaton-Harris needs to be absolutely clear that he is going to fund and support, and the UK Government is going to fund and support the small businesses of this town.”
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